A closing door
New Taliban clampdowns come as U.S. officials make it harder for vulnerable Afghans to escape
U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday hailed what he called the “extraordinary success” of the mission to airlift Americans, Afghans, and other foreigners to safety over the past two weeks. But as he spoke from the White House State Dining Room, frantic efforts by thousands of former military members, diplomatic personnel, and leaders of NGOs ramped up to get stranded Americans and Afghans out of a country now under Taliban control.
The United States along with NATO member states and other countries evacuated more than 123,000 people from Afghanistan since Aug. 14, including nearly 6,000 Americans. And the president pledged in his speech his administration would “ensure safe passage for any American, Afghan partner, or foreign national who wants to leave Afghanistan.”
But a door is closing to make that happen, say experts, and the United States isn’t doing enough to facilitate continued departures. Experts involved in ongoing extractions say the State Department is actually making the process more difficult by imposing new requirements on countries in the region that process Afghan refugees.
The U.S. military’s hasty retreat from the Kabul airport has left “initial estimates at 15,000 Americans stranded in dangerous areas controlled by a brutal enemy along with 25,000 Afghan citizens who supported American forces,” said 90 retired U.S. generals and admirals in an open letter released this week. The officers, decrying a “disastrous withdrawal” from Afghanistan, called for the resignation of the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “based on negligence in performing their duties.”
The administration puts the number needing evacuation far lower, with Biden on Tuesday saying “about 100 to 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan with some intention to leave.” Those numbers are widely disputed, and WORLD is aware of about 50 U.S. passport holders still looking to exit the country.
The overall numbers do not include Afghans who worked with U.S.-backed nonprofits or groups subject in the past to Taliban atrocities. In many cases those individuals also qualify for special immigrant visas, or SIVs, available to Afghan translators for the U.S. military. Around 20,000 Afghans are currently in the pipeline waiting for an SIV, while up to 70,000—including applicants and their immediate family members—are eligible to apply.
The nongovernmental workers predominantly include women, ethnic minorities like the Hazaras, and non-Muslims—people who are particularly vulnerable under Taliban control. Many of them face new danger. Hours after the U.S. departure from the Kabul airport, reports multiplied of Taliban patrols going door to door to seize and in some cases execute Afghans suspected of working with Americans.
“We have vulnerable Afghan Hazara women with their families who’ve been deprived of seats on planes because the United States has raised the bar. Something is happening with the State Department that is very troubling,” said Bob Hedlund, CEO at Joint Development Associates International, a Colorado-based nonprofit operating in Afghanistan since December 2001 with funding from USAID.
Like many Americans who spent years working in Afghanistan, Hedlund for weeks has worked round-the-clock to get remaining staff out of the country. Now searching for charter flights or overland routes, Hedlund said he is running into new U.S. rules each step of the way.
Those with SIVs, for example, as of this week must have the actual visa stamped and pasted into their passport. Yet with the U.S. Embassy in Kabul closed since early August, that’s an impossible requirement to meet.
In one case, a staff member who applied for SIV status in 2018 received an approval letter dated Aug. 22, 2021. The letter, which I have seen, allowed the Afghan to pass through Taliban checkpoints into the Kabul airport area last week, but then she was denied access to waiting flights through U.S.-managed gates.
The approval letter from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul certifies she “is experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of the employment by or on behalf of the United States Government.” Yet this week, the same approval letter was unacceptable, without the stamped visa, for boarding a charter flight out of another city.
Hedlund believes his window is limited to get more than 150 staff members and their families out of the country. He was able to get only three staff members out via the Kabul airport during U.S.-run operations there. Yet all staff members had applied for—and some had received—U.S. visas designated for Afghans who worked with U.S. entities. Some of those staff members are Christians who face additional threats.
U.S. control over the exit process has continued even after the last American soldier departed the Kabul airport. Afghans say they cannot carry documentation the United States demands without risking capture from the Taliban. To apply for humanitarian parole Afghans must arrive with multiple forms, bank records, and passport-sized photos, including a cover sheet printed “on brightly colored paper,” according to distributed U.S. immigration guidelines. (The process also requires a $575 check per person made out to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.)
“For a lot of people, paperwork is an inconvenience, but in this case it is literally life and death,” said Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum.
U.S. rules are one of the reasons some countries that only days ago were willing to accept Afghans are closing borders or limiting flights and access. Uzbekistan on Tuesday closed its border with Afghanistan and said it would give Afghans arriving by air only 24 hours to transit out of the country.
For Hedlund—whose staff members just missed the Aug. 26 airport bombing that killed 13 Americans and nearly 200 Afghans—the repeated setbacks are heartbreaking. “I get emotional talking about it because I have worked with many of these people since they were university students and watched them become top leaders, and I love these guys.”
Hedlund’s organization had assisted more than 200,000 Afghan farmers, along with running training programs for men and women in sanitation, hygiene, and nutrition. “It was the modality of my organization to train locals,” said Hedlund, “and they were the backbone of my organization.”
Helping to head a group coordinating evacuations focused on religious minorities and other vulnerable Afghans is Sam Brownback, the former U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom. The group has met daily to coordinate efforts among military and diplomatic experts, along with human rights advocates. “Recent history shows us what happens when the U.S. withdraws and ISIS and other terror groups move in,” Brownback said. “The end result is genocide, and it is imperative that we in the West do all we can to prevent the slaughter of innocent Afghans.”
In particular, the former ambassador has lobbied countries bordering Afghanistan to welcome Afghans and called on the U.S. government to join international efforts to create a safe zone in Afghanistan for fleeing Afghans.
Brownback said in a statement released Tuesday that with completion of the U.S. withdrawal, “the humanitarian crisis is likely only just beginning.” With major private efforts underway to find safe passage for Afghans who fear that their religion or past affiliation with the United States could make them a target for the Taliban or other terrorist groups, he said, “the State Department must support these efforts and not, as some reports indicate has been done, present obstacles.”
The United States so far has refused to join an effort backed by France, Britain, and Germany to establish a UN-sponsored safe zone in Kabul for continued evacuations. Instead, it backed a watered-down resolution passed Monday by the UN Security Council, saying it “expects” the Taliban to honor its commitment to allowing Afghans to leave the country and “requests” the Kabul airport be securely reopened.
French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters France has begun discussions with the Taliban to reestablish flights out of Kabul, as the Taliban seeks to form a government that could gain international legitimacy. But he will likely be pushing the effort without U.S. support.
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