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Dispatch
The Uncomfortable Truth of Biden’s Rapid Afghanistan Withdrawal
In Kabul, it is increasingly clear that the U.S. departure is so rushed and poorly planned that it will be impossible to evacuate everyone at risk of Taliban reprisal.
By Jane Ferguson
July 30, 2021
Afghans line up at the passport office in Kabul as the completion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces approaches.​Photograph by Rahmat Gul / AP
On a recent afternoon in Kabul, three Afghan men walked up to the table where I was sitting with colleagues in a local restaurant. We had arrived early for an interview, and our presence had somehow drawn their attention. “Are you journalists?” one of the men asked, his voice muffled by the Lebanese pop music blaring overhead. I answered yes with a sense of unease. As security has deteriorated in the Afghan capital, fewer foreigners have ventured out in public. “We would like to talk to you, please,” the man said. “We came here from Baghlan two weeks ago and are civil-rights activists.”
The men politely explained that they and fellow-activists had fled the northern province after advancing Taliban forces threatened to take over its largest city. Now seven of them were living together in a small hotel room in Kabul and pleading with foreigners in restaurants for help. “Even here, we are constantly changing our locations,” the man later told me. “So the enemy can’t track us.” The very nature of their work has been to act as visible supporters of the United States, they said, holding local press conferences in order to call out human-rights abuses by the Taliban and other groups. “Our faces are known as the people who went in the media and spoke in the name of human rights,” one of the Afghans told me, as his colleagues leaned in close to listen and nodded in agreement. “We are known across the country.”
The men, all of whom asked not to be named, said they feared that the Taliban would assassinate them, as the organization has more than a hundred Afghan human-rights activists, women’s-rights supporters, doctors, and journalists over the last year. The men I spoke with called for the Biden Administration to broaden its planned evacuation of U.S. allies in Afghanistan, extending the pool beyond military interpreters to include Afghans who have promoted human rights, development, and democracy in the country. “Now it is an obligation of the U.S. to help those who raised their voices,” one of the men said. “We are among that group of people whose lives are in danger and for whom a plan must be sorted.”
The Biden Administration’s rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan has spurred a debate over the moral responsibility that America bears to its partners in a failed foreign intervention. Deciding who receives help getting out and why will only grow more urgent as the completion of the U.S. withdrawal approaches, on August 31st. Across Afghanistan, thousands of local civilians have participated in one of the largest efforts to rebuild a nation since the Second World War, establishing thousands of schools and health clinics, along with hundreds of human-rights groups and local-language news outlets. What once was a well-paying, steady job contributing to the nation’s future has now become a dangerous liability. Younger Afghans embraced the use of new technologies to help modernize their society; cell phones, social media and cable television—from “American Idol”-like singing competitions to twenty-four-hour news channels—exploded in popularity. But now that online visibility makes it easier for the Taliban to track and find those who embraced the American-led effort. “We are just a Google away,” an Afghan working at a European embassy told me. “Search, everybody can find you.”
The rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces has exacerbated long-running dynamics in Afghanistan. Afghans who aided the American effort are frantically looking for ways out of the country. The U.S. system for vetting Afghan visa applicants remains exhausting and time-consuming. And the rumors and misinformation that have long plagued the country have intensified, fuelling public confusion and panic. Critics say that Biden’s surprise announcement in April that he would withdraw nearly all American troops in five months did not allow enough time for U.S. officials to safely evacuate Afghan allies. There are currently just over twenty thousand applicants, half of whom have not completed the initial stage of the process. In Kabul, Biden’s withdrawal increasingly appears poorly planned, rushed, and chaotic.
The pandemic has also complicated the effort. Due to covid-19 restrictions, the U.S. Embassy stopped offering visa interviews for several months this spring. The interviews recently resumed, but getting one remains an enormous challenge—even for Afghans who have worked for the U.S. military. Current and former interpreters must produce documents proving their identity and that they worked with U.S. forces—and they must obtain testimonials from American military officers, many of whom are now thousands of miles away or have left the service. In response to the enormous demand for visas, businesses have sprung up in Kabul to help, for a price.
On a recent morning, a glass-fronted office in a shopping mall was filled with anxious Afghan men clutching paperwork and waiting for their names to be called. The walls were adorned with signs promising “US immigration visa” and “SIV”—the abbreviation for the Special Immigrant Visa, which military translators and other U.S. Armed Forces employees can apply for. “I have to get an H.R. letter plus a recommendation letter from the supervisor that I work with,” one young man told me, in broken English. “But due to evacuation of Americans and due to leave of your supervisor to U.S.A. or any other places, you can’t reach them.” The young man, who asked not to be named, said that he had been frantically searching Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram for the contact information of the U.S. military officers who supervised him. He said that he was denied a visa in 2019, after almost three years of waiting, because his supervisor never responded to e-mails from American officials asking him to confirm the authenticity of a recommendation letter. “They didn’t answer,” the young man said. In the end, he told me, he was forced to find another American former military supervisor and start over again. Even now, he said, he is working for the U.S. Embassy as an interpreter, but staffers there offer no help in getting through the bewildering application process.
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State Department officials said that, for conflict-of-interest reasons, American diplomats in Kabul cannot advise Afghan employees; this is the case for all categories of visa. Officials acknowledged that the S.I.V. process, which involves over a dozen steps and an opaque security review, can be slow-moving. In the thirteen years since the S.I.V. program was created, seventy thousand Afghans have received visas, a rate of roughly six thousand a year. In 2021, the U.S. has issued around three thousand visas so far. On Friday morning, the first planeload of approximately two hundred Afghans arrived in the U.S. as part of an airlift operation. Back in Afghanistan, there are still the twenty thousand Afghans whose visa applications are currently wending their way through the system, and critics maintain that there is no way to process so many applicants before the U.S. military departs.
Afghans who work for foreign embassies have expressed growing distrust. Steps taken to safeguard U.S. troops and show that President Biden is delivering on his promise to pull out American forces have unnerved Afghans. On the night of July 2nd, U.S. forces abandoned their largest military compound in the country, Bagram Airfield. American officials said that they informed Afghan leaders of the withdrawal but made no public announcement for security reasons. To Afghans, it seemed as if the Americans had pulled out in the dead of night, without warning. Afghans who work in foreign embassies expressed fear of additional stealth evacuations. “That made us think a lot,” the Afghan who works at a European embassy told me. “We were thinking that, as the U.S. just left Bagram without any announcement, the next day, or one day, it will happen to us, that we go to the embassy and see nobody’s there.” His embassy, he added, had made contingency plans to evacuate its foreign staff but included none of the Afghans currently working there.
Part of the challenge of any military withdrawal is the very nature of acknowledging defeat. Some U.S. officials argue that expanding the number of Afghans who are evacuated could further cripple morale in the Afghan security forces and speed the collapse of the Afghan state. Afghans who created local aid organizations with American funding and support are unsure what to do. As a precaution, women’s shelters in areas where the Taliban has advanced recently evacuated their staff and residents. Women’s-rights advocates who spoke to me during past reporting trips to the country declined to do so on this one, citing fears of how the Taliban might respond if they speak publicly. Some female activists say that they will appeal to the good graces of the Taliban—Afghan women have little choice but to ask for protection from a group famous for subjugating them. Masuda Sultan, a New York-based Afghan American working with women’s organizations inside Afghanistan, said that women could appeal on religious grounds, explaining, “Protecting women in war is our Islamic duty. Full stop. Our religion supports us in its guidance for protecting the vulnerable.”
In a neat, one-room home on a whitewashed lane in Kabul, a former interpreter for the U.S. military handed me pictures and paperwork from his time working with American troops. The interpreter, who asked to be called by the pseudonym Ahmed, for safety reasons, sat cross-legged on the floor. His ten-month-old baby boy lay on the rug beside him, wriggling and crying in red Captain America pajamas. Ahmed’s three other children shyly watched us from across the room as his wife boiled water for tea. In 2010, while working as an interpreter for the British military, he had decided to translate for the Americans instead. “It was too dangerous working for U.K. forces,” he recalled. Soon after Ahmed began working with U.S. troops, an improvised bomb exploded while he was walking on a patrol and badly wounded him.
After receiving several months of medical care from the Americans, he recovered—but his unit had headed home. Over time, he lost contact with his American supervisors. Three years later, Ahmed applied for a U.S. visa as a former military interpreter. For the next four years, his application wound its way through a labyrinthine vetting process. In 2017, his application was denied, because he did not have a letter of recommendation from his previous American supervisor. In 2020, he tried to get hired again as a U.S. military translator. He was rejected because records showed that he had given a different name for his maternal grandfather in an earlier application. He said that the Americans had the wrong name in their documentation, but the interviewers grew suspicious and told him to leave their base. “They asked me, ‘Where are your uncles living on your mother’s side?’ ” he recalled. “Maybe they thought they were Taliban.”
​​General David Petraeus, who formerly commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, said that the system for issuing S.I.V.s to military translators was broken. “It is accurate to say that it takes longer to get an S.I.V. than for us to put a rover on Mars,” Petraeus said. “It’s a very lengthy process with a lot of bureaucratic Stations of the Cross, and any adverse information, whether verified or not, can actually bring the process to a halt.” Petraeus called for the Biden White House to accelerate the issuing of visas for military translators. “The military has a lot of resources, needless to say, but it requires policy decisions, and that is where the issue is.”
Biden Administration officials have said that they are working as fast as possible to issue visas to military interpreters, and that they’re weighing whether to issue visas to Afghans involved in civilian aid projects as well. Jason Crow, a Colorado congressman and Army veteran, who served two tours in Afghanistan, called for Afghans who backed nonmilitary efforts to receive visas as well. “I’m talking more broadly about those whose lives will be in jeopardy due to our ongoing withdrawal,” Crow told me, “looking hard at civic and community and women leaders in the country who will be under extreme risk going forward.”
With the U.S. withdrawal four weeks away, the uncomfortable truth is that it will be impossible to evacuate everyone who is at risk of Taliban reprisal. The Afghans I spoke with said that they did not regret backing the American effort and that they were proud of the economic and humanitarian gains Afghanistan had made over the last two decades. But they felt that a rushed American withdrawal was causing them to be treated unfairly. During our conversation in his home, Ahmed, the former military translator, explained that several of his relatives had worked for the Canadian military. “Now they live in Canada,” he said, as his four children watched.
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