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The Afghan Helpers America Left Behind


One year ago today, Ahmad left home for work as he always did. As he made his way through Kabul, Afghanistan, he didn’t notice anything strange.

At 9:30 a.m., he and his colleagues held a meeting to discuss the worrying cascade of provinces that had fallen to the Taliban in recent days. “Our American manager assured us that nothing will happen at least in the next three months,” he says. The meeting concluded at 10:15. By 11, the American manager knocked on his door and told Ahmad to leave the office as soon as possible.

“When I left the campus, I noticed that many armored cars are heading to the airport,” he recounts. The Taliban takeover of Kabul was underway, marking the bitter end of America’s two-decade war and nation-building effort in Afghanistan. For Ahmad—who asked that his real name not be used, fearing retaliation—it was the beginning of a mad dash for survival under a new regime.

In the year since the Taliban takeover, Ahmad has fled Afghanistan, certain that elements of the new regime would have him killed for his service to the United States. Other helpers have chosen to stay in Afghanistan. All contributed years of their lives to the U.S. military, but they were unable to access the visas Washington promised them—and the escape route that American politicians laid out in Afghanistan’s twilight last summer.

“Our message to those women and men is clear,” said President Joe Biden in remarks last July. “There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose, and we will stand with you just as you stood with us.”

That announcement foreshadowed a six-week evacuation of Afghan helpers and civilians that would eventually see over 76,000 evacuees brought to the United States. But the U.S. left behind approximately 78,000 Afghans who assisted American forces and became eligible for American visas through their service. Though many lawmakers have continued to battle bureaucratic barriers to improve helpers’ immigration chances, advocates say it’s too little, too late.

America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan left trillions in wasted money and tens of thousands of civilian and servicemember deaths in its wake. The destruction continues to this day in the form of the men and women whose service to the American cause has put them in the crosshairs of the Taliban, with no relief in sight.

The war came to an end last year, with Biden making good on his promise to withdraw all U.S. troops by August 31. Tens of thousands of Afghans served alongside those troops, assisting American forces during the conflict as interpreters, engineers, and drivers.

In 2009, the U.S. government established an immigration pathway for them called the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), partially as a reward for their valuable service and partially in recognition of the grave danger they often faced after helping to fight the Taliban. Though the U.S. government does not record deaths among Afghan helpers, it’s estimated that more than 300 interpreters and family members died between 2014 and 2020. The number has almost certainly risen, given recent reports of Taliban retaliation.

The SIV program has long been flawed, and it was ill-prepared to offer widespread relief before the troop withdrawal. The complex 14-step application process, worsened by a lack of trained personnel at the Department of State and by long delays for security checks, led to an average processing time last May of nearly three years. In August 2021, there were around 20,000 Afghans stranded in the SIV backlog, with another 70,000 eligible to apply.

Ahmad says working with Americans was one of the best parts of his professional life. For nearly two years, he helped teach Afghan pilots English. “I learned many great things” from the Americans, he says, “such as honesty, punctuality, flexibility, and freedom of ideas and beliefs.” His work was a childhood dream—international troops had patrolled his village in 2005 and later came to share watermelon in his home. His father asked his children to one day “stand with international troops and fight against [the] Taliban and other extremist groups in Afghanistan.”

“I felt honored and proud that we all fought for something valuable,” Ahmad explains. In addition to his service to the U.S., he founded an organization that oversaw projects on human rights and climate change across Afghanistan.

After all that work, he was gutted to see his country fall to the Taliban. Ahmad says Taliban fighters “started killing former security forces, American and NATO allies,” as the evacuation ended. He felt it was too risky to try to escape via the airport, since Taliban fighters had established checkpoints along the main routes and since throngs of people were blocking the airport gates.

Ahmad stayed behind as the last evacuation flights took off. Though he applied for an SIV last August and secured a letter of recommendation from his American supervisor, he says the Taliban eventually came to find him and kill him for his affiliation with the U.S. government. He had to go into hiding. After moving four times within Afghanistan, he decided to leave the country entirely, fleeing in the dark of night. He now lives in a nearby country and asked that Reason not share his location, since he’s still “not very safe.”

Asked to describe the anniversary of the Taliban takeover, Sadat—another helper who asked that his real name not be used—simply calls it “very painful.”

“We have been unemployed for a year. Our children cannot go to school. We ourselves are in hiding,” he says. Sadat worked at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul for four years. Now, as he navigates life under the new regime, he’s forced to see the vandalism the Taliban left on his former workplace. “When I pass by the American embassy and see the Talib flag on the walls of the embassy, I cry.”

Sadat has relatives who worked with the Canadians, the Germans, and the Brits. “All of them were transferred with dignity and respect, but I stayed here,” he explains. He says there’s no laughter in public now, no music. Nobody wears colorful clothing anymore. Wedding ceremonies feel like funerals. “Ethnic and religious minorities are like prisoners,” Sadat explains. “Anyone who does not submit to a [forced marriage] will be gang-raped and killed.”

Sadat says he applied for an SIV in 2019, but his case wasn’t approved before the withdrawal. He’s still waiting on a visa answer. Until then, he subsists, unable to get a job as someone who once worked for the Americans. “We sold all the furniture and other items in the house so that I can provide water and bread for my children,” he says.

As Afghanistan’s collapse became inevitable, many federal officials defended the way they handled evacuations for Afghan helpers.

“I know there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner,” Biden said on August 16 last year. “Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country. Part of it because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.”

In many ways, the effort was destined to be chaotic. Application backlogs and bureaucratic complexity meant the Biden administration inherited a problem that was already huge. “From my perspective, it was a slow-moving train wreck,” Russ Travers, the White House SIV lead last year, told Politico. “We were going to fail, the question was how badly we were going to fail.”

The administration has taken some steps to streamline the application process. It is moving, for example, to direct certain application paperwork through one agency instead of several. But SIV processing has not improved much. Certain factors—such as pandemic-induced service reductions at the State Department and the closure of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul—limit the federal government’s ability to handle applications efficiently. More than 77,000 SIV applicants are now stuck in Afghanistan, and many of them also want to sponsor their children and spouses. At the current pace of processing, Politico notes, many SIV-eligible Afghans “would likely still be waiting at the end of a potential second Biden term, in 2029.”

One year after the Taliban takeover, a pathway to the U.S. is still out of reach for many Afghan helpers—those who fled Afghanistan, like Ahmad, and those who stayed, like Sadat. Without immigration relief, Sadat says the outlook is bleak: “We have no hope for the future.”

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