US criticised as it races against time to save its Afghan helpers from Taliban


Show caption Taliban forces patrol a street in Herat, Afghanistan, on Saturday. Fears are growing for thousands of Afghans who helped western forces during the conflict. Photograph: Reuters Afghanistan US criticised as it races against time to save its Afghan helpers from Taliban US efforts to evacuate its Afghan employees regarded as too little, too late, as many visa recipients struggle to leave country Julian Borger in Washington Sun 15 Aug 2021 11.00 BST Share on Facebook

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The US is in a race against time to ramp up the processing of its former Afghan employees under threat from the Taliban military juggernaut, but critics say the effort is too little and too late for Afghans who responded to western urging to build a more democratic society.

As of Friday, about 1,200 Afghans with special immigration visas (SIVs) had arrived at Fort Lee, Virginia, as part of the evacuation plan Operation Allies Refuge. The group – comprising former military interpreters, other US employees and their families – is a tiny fraction of the 18,000 Afghans known to have applied for SIVs for themselves and their families, who are desperate to leave as the Taliban close in on Kabul.

Many of those who have been granted visas have not been able to get out, refugee advocates say. Some have been trapped in provinces already overrun by the Taliban as one city fell after another at stunning speed. And even visa recipients in Kabul have not been assigned a US government flight.

“These are people who have their visas, but they were never scheduled for an evacuation, so it’s a very bizarre situation,” James Miervaldis, the chairman of the board of the refugee support group, No One Left Behind, said.

The group, which was founded by refugees, is raising money to pay for commercial flights out for Afghans with SIV status. They have so far raised $1m and have flown out 41 Afghan families. Its immediate aim is to pay for flights for 100 families, and possibly as many as 500, if the US government does not meet the demand for flights.

The state department on Friday said it would increase the frequency of flights for visa holders.

“We have a solemn, a sincere, responsibility to these brave Afghans,” spokesman Ned Price told reporters. “Additional flights will begin landing daily, and you’re going to see the total number grow very quickly in the coming days and the coming weeks.”

The SIV application procedure has so far proved slow and cumbersome, and the state department is struggling to find a safe place for Afghans who are in the midst of the process.

Negotiations are under way with Qatar on providing a staging post for Afghan visa applicants, and 1,000 US troops have been sent there to help with the process, but so far a deal has not been concluded. There have also been talks with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and Reuters reported that Albania and Kosovo have been approached.

Krishanti O’Mara Vignarajah, the president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said that given the security situation in Afghanistan, it was too late to be starting negotiations with third countries.

​“The truth is, the clock is up on any effort to outsource our moral obligation to other countries,” she said.

“Anything less than a full evacuation of all allies and their families would be an abdication of our moral responsibility. It is just baffling that the administration has resisted bringing them to US territory. It’s ridiculous for us to go door to door asking other countries to do what we have the capacity to do ourselves.”

Those eligible for SIVs account for just part of the Afghan population that is now acutely vulnerable because they joined western-backed journalism ventures, or women’s rights groups, worked to promote girls’ education or any number of social or economic projects. Also excluded are former employees who did not work for the US for long enough (one or two years depending on the role) to qualify for a SIV.

There are already reports from Taliban-conquered areas of reprisal killings, summary executions, tight restrictions on women’s work and cases of forced marriage.

Earlier this month, the US announced that those who had worked for US-funded NGOs or media organisations would be eligible for another type of visa, a P2. But in order to apply, candidates would have to be outside Afghanistan.

In an urgent cable to Washington published by ABC News, the acting US ambassador to Kabul, Ross Wilson, said that was a steep condition at a time when the Taliban control most of the border.

​“Any assumption that Afghan refugees can make their way to safety on foot does not reflect the new reality,” Wilson wrote, pointing out that the group includes prominent women’s rights activists who the US had “raised as examples of progress toward gender equality” but are now in danger.

“To just issue P2 status last week, is again very late in the game,” O’Mara Vignarajah said. “There are countless journalists, teachers, women’s rights activists and other civil society leaders who shared fundamental beliefs and ideals and worked closely with the US government’s mission and their lives are in jeopardy as a result. It is our moral duty to offer a pathway to protection for them as the security situation rapidly deteriorates”.

James Schwemlein, who worked for the World Bank and as a senior adviser to the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, estimated there could be 100,000 Afghans who could be eligible for visas under P2 status. But he argued that the door should be opened wider still, and not limited to Afghans who worked for US-funded organisations.

“Hundreds of thousands of Afghans made life choices based on a hopeful vision of the future that the US and our allies proactively fostered over two decades,” Schwemlein wrote on Twitter. “They have much to offer their country, our country, and the world. Please don’t leave them behind.”