U.S. President Joe Biden’s rapid pullout from Afghanistan has left thousands of Afghans who worked as translators and guides for the U.S. military in a desperate race to escape the country to avoid being targeted by the Taliban.
Amid the chaotic U.S. withdrawal, Afghan allies are having to navigate complicated logistics and an overburdened bureaucracy to get visa paperwork in front of U.S. officials. Those same documents are both a ticket out of their war-torn homeland and also potentially incriminating evidence if the Taliban discovers them.
“The Taliban are knocking on our door,” said an Afghan national who worked as an interpreter alongside U.S. forces during some of the bloodiest years of the Afghanistan war. His name is being withheld to protect his safety. “My three daughters are always crying. We are very scared.”
With some 3,500 U.S. troops currently on the ground securing the airport in Kabul, and more expected to arrive in the coming days, the Pentagon said it expects to be capable of evacuating 5,000 to 9,000 people a day. But they have to be able to make their way past Taliban checkpoints to get there.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby on Tuesday said it was the military’s “sacred obligation” to assist Afghans who worked for U.S. forces in evacuating the country. But the military’s focus, Kirby said, is on securing the Kabul airport — not on transporting Afghans to the airport.
“You’ve got to understand the limited, tailored mission we’re trying to conduct right now,” Kirby told reporters.
The interpreter is in the same predicament as many Afghans who are caught in that limbo. He said he believed the Americans would never abandon him on the battlefield.
“We had a good relationship,” the interpreter said of his American friends, many of whom are still in regular contact with him. “We were like brothers.”
The interpreter said in a telephone conversation that he and his family have been trying to get to the airport for the last three days. When he arrived at the east gate on Wednesday he was told only those with green cards or visas would be allowed through. He said that when he tried to show proof of his work for the U.S. using his smart phone, it was pushed away.
Bloomberg News has reviewed the interpreter’s employment paperwork, Afghan passport, I.D. and U.S. visa application and spoken with his former military supervisor to verify his identity. Bloomberg has spoken with the interpreter on multiple occasions since Sunday.
Recent military veterans in Congress say they have watched the fall of Kabul with sadness and anger. Many have said the U.S. is leaving friends and allies behind to the threat of retribution by the Taliban if they are discovered with paperwork identifying them as having helped the U.S.
“It’s a death sentence for them if they’re caught moving with that documentation,” said Rep. Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican and former Green Beret who served in Afghanistan.
Waltz and his colleagues, including Reps. Jason Crow and Seth Moulton, two Democrats who also served in the military, have been pressing the administration to do more.
Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat who served as a Marine in Iraq, said it’s “within America’s power to save these lives.” But, he added, it requires securing the airport and eliminating onerous paperwork requirements.
“We need to save lives and then worry about immigration status,” Moulton said in an interview.
Jeffery Trammell, a U.S. Army infantry platoon leader who worked with the interpreter, said the most pressing issue is getting Afghan allies safely to the airport, a journey that is becoming more perilous by the day.
“The major issue is getting everyone out and everyone is talking about everything else,” Trammell said.
Many who qualify for special immigration visas are growing increasingly desperate as they remain in hiding, hopelessly mired in the 14-step process of getting their visas approved.
“The 1980 Refugee Act was passed precisely to stop the last-minute scrambling,” said Mark Hetfield, chief executive of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which has been resettling Afghan refugees. “But it’s been so laden with bureaucracy and red tape that it just doesn’t move.”
Members of Congress have pressed the administration to expedite visa processing, increase the cap on the number of applicants and waive some requirements. Congress also passed an emergency security supplemental that included more than $1 billion to help get people out of Afghanistan. Biden also has approved spending as much as $500 million from the Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund to assist those fleeing Afghanistan.
The Biden administration’s first flight of Afghan refugees arrived in the U.S. at the end of July when a plane carrying more than 200 people landed at Dulles International Airport. The refugees were brought to Fort Lee in Virginia, where they were to undergo health screenings and further processing of their visas. To date, Operation Allies Refuge has brought to the United States nearly 2,000 Afghan SIV applicants, according to the State Department.
Lawmakers have said that is nowhere near enough and have urged the administration to drop many of the most onerous requirements and focus on simply getting people out of the country. Images from the Kabul airport of desperate Afghans clinging to the side of an American transport plane has added additional urgency to the push.
“We can debate for a long time whether or not it was the right decision to pull out of Afghanistan,” Moulton said. “But today on the ground we can still save lives. And it’s up to the administration to do so.”
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