Editor’s note: This story, originally published on June 24, was updated on July 2 with new information about potential evacuation locations and recently passed House bill.
Every day, Hashmat wakes up in his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, and wonders if today is the day things will change. He doesn’t work, because he cannot leave his home — it’s too dangerous. If the Taliban finds him, they will kill him, he says. That’s what they tell him every day.
“You are a puppet of the U.S. Army, and now they’ve left you,” a social media message from a Taliban member says. “We will kill you.” He receives similar messages daily. And Hashmat takes their messages seriously — they’ve murdered family, friends, coworkers and acquaintances of his. Just days ago, he tells me, they killed an Afghan man who worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military in a nearby province.
Hashmat’s connection to the U.S. is what puts him in danger. He worked since 2009 as a contractor to the military, providing ATVs and other nontactical vehicles at the Kandahar Airfield. He didn’t view the U.S.’s presence in his country as an invasion, instead respecting their efforts to promote democracy. He wanted to help, and he did so for more than a decade.
Now, as U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, Hashmat’s safety slips away with them. In theory, he should qualify for a special interest visa, or SIV, a pathway authorized by Congress in 2009 for Afghan nationals who provided valuable service to the U.S. and were put in danger by doing so. But huge backlogs and technicalities have barred Hashmat, and thousands of other Afghans, from receiving aid. The longer the process takes, the more danger these allies face. And although the U.S. government plans to move these Afghan allies to a safe third country until their visas can be processed, the details of when and how — or even where — are still unknown.
Bloomberg reported on July 2 that the U.S. has asked Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to accept about 9,000 Afghans temporarily, but that includes just half of the total number of individuals in the visa backlog — and a fraction of their immediate family members, who would also be eligible for evacuation. “On its face, this is inadequate,” said Ali Noorani, director of the National Immigration Forum.
The U.S. military would not have been able to operate for two decades in Afghanistan without the help of some locals — interpreters, translators, spies, vehicle contractors (like Hashmat). As one recent Time article put it, the U.S. amassed two armies in Afghanistan: one of American sons and daughters, and another of Afghan allies.
In 2009, the creation of two visa programs offered legal residence in the U.S. to those Afghans who were employed by the military. The idea was simple — the on-the-ground allies, who often risked their lives to help the U.S., would not be abandoned. In the 12 years since, over 89,000 Afghans have received visas via the SIV program.
But as American armed forces are pulled from Afghanistan, Hashmat and others feel abandoned. Some 18,000 Afghans are stuck in a visa backlog with no visible timetable. (When immediate family members are taken into account, that number balloons to 70,000). Although the U.S. plans to fully withdraw from the region by Sept. 11, CNN reports the withdrawal is virtually complete; and in as few as six months after the U.S. withdraws, the Afghanistan government could collapse, the U.S. intelligence community says.
Although Hashmat and others are expected to be transported to another country to wait while their visas are processed, they could be waiting for years. On average, the start-to-finish process for SIV applicants takes 996 days.
An internal audit by the U.S. Department of State from June 2020 found that insufficient staffing in visa-processing offices in the Middle East played a large role in the backlog. In June, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul paused visa interviews due to COVID-19 outbreaks. Applications would continue to be processed in Washington, the State Department announced, but no mention was made of how many applications would be delayed.
In May, a bipartisan group of 20 senators called on President Joe Biden to expand the SIV program and expedite the process. Four of those senators introduced a bill in June to do just that, proposing an increased number of available visas and eliminating procedural delays (like postponing the mandatory health examination until the applicant is in the U.S.). A similar bill passed the House on June 29 with overwhelming support. Other lawmakers go further: a bipartisan group of House members urged the Biden administration to “immediately” evacuate these Afghan allies. Such an evacuation is not unprecedented — after the Vietnam War, the U.S. evacuated 130,000 refugees to Guam, many of whom later resettled in the U.S.
Time is not on our side, House members say. “To put it very bluntly, none of us want to see one of those individuals that have worked with us have their head cut off on the internet,” Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., said in May. His colleague, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, concurs: “These Afghans will have a bull’s-eye on their backs from the moment we leave the country. If President Biden abandons them, he is signing their death warrants.”
Rushing through the visa backlog will not provide an immediate solution for all. SIV applicants are subject to “the most arduous background check in U.S. immigration law,” TimeI reports, and the 14-step process includes vague and sometimes impractical criteria. Hashmat’s first application was rejected because his American supervisor did not identify as Hashmat’s “direct supervisor” in a letter of recommendation. One interpreter told The New York Times he was rejected for “unprofessional conduct” after using profanity in 2013. Another was denied because, as a 9-year-old, he gave bread to quell the demands of an angry Taliban member who threatened to burn his house down. Yet another, who worked as a spy for the CIA, doesn’t have sufficient documentation to prove his allyship.
The Taliban issued a statement earlier last month, calling on Afghan contractors to “show remorse,” but assured them they are not in danger. Refugee advocates argue the Taliban should not be trusted; Hashmat said the same. “Never, ever believe them,” he told me — they never keep their promises. The government keeps no official tally of Afghan allies and family members killed since the war began in 2001, but the nonprofit No One Left Behind estimates it to be at least 300.
Without swift action and logistical maneuvering from Washington, the U.S. could be losing trust, too. Failure to help Afghan allies now could make it difficult to find on-the-ground help in future international conflicts.
For Hashmat, a husband and father of three children — the youngest only 7 months old — coming to the U.S. is his only hope. He has been shunned by friends and extended family. He is unable to work, unable to travel, unable to go in public. And like thousands of other Afghans, he’s relying on a promise from the U.S., but time is running out.
I told Hashmat we could withhold his name from this story, for his and his family’s safety. “No, I don’t mind,” he told me. “They (the Taliban) already know my name. It can’t get worse than it already is.”