November 29, 2021

After US withdrawal, few answers for Afghans left behind

The United States withdrawal from Afghanistan has dashed hopes of an immediate evacuation for Afghans who had worked for the US or NATO governments during their 20-year engagement in the country.

For Abdul Matin Amiri, like thousands of other Afghans, the end of the chaotic and rushed evacuations by the US and other foreign governments proved the latest setback in a five-year attempt to leave his homeland and find safety abroad. Those attempts began in 2016, when he first applied for a Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) available for Afghans who worked for the US government.

Amiri, who worked for US-led NATO forces and as a journalist for the United Nations-led International Security Assistance Force, is one of an estimated tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans possibly eligible for relocation by the US or other Western powers, through programmes including the SIVs or the US’s expanded refugee visa category, that remain in the country after the foreign troop withdrawal.

The departure relinquished control of the airport to the Taliban and prompted a hard stop to evacuation efforts of other countries, who have virtually all closed their embassies in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s security chief in Kabul Khalil Ur-Rahman Haqqani told Al Jazeera on August 22 that “all Afghans” should feel safe and that there was a “general amnesty” across the country.

“I’m really scared,” Amiri told Al Jazeera in the final hours of the US withdrawal, adding the Taliban had twice visited his home in Kandahar since taking power. “I’m always moving from one home to another, so are my children.”

“I grew up in democracy; I studied in democracy. I lived in a country where, as a journalist, I had the voice of freedom,” he added. “I don’t want my children to grow up unfree and under extremism.”

Several foreign governments have promised to continue to help those they worked with in Afghanistan – who are considered possible targets by the Taliban – but none has offered clear plans on what comes next as they wait to see what shape a Taliban government will take.

In the US, minutes after the final military flight left Afghan soil, General Kenneth McKenzie acknowledged to reporters, “We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out.” However, he pushed back on claims that extending the operation for days would have made a marked difference.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meanwhile, confirmed there would be no US diplomatic presence in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, with operations for Afghanistan moved to Qatar.

Still, in a tweet, he promised to hold the Taliban to its commitment on freedom of movement for “foreign nationals, visa holders, and at-risk Afghans. The international chorus on this is strong, and it will stay strong.”

On Monday, Blinken also said that Washington was working with neighbouring countries to secure the departure of the about 200 remaining US citizens in the country and Afghan allies either by land or air.

“We have no illusion that any of this will be easy, or rapid,” Blinken said.

‘Will they hold true to any of their promises?’

With the Taliban in control of Kabul airport, little clarity on when and how operations there will resume, and few Western consular resources for Afghans remaining in the country, there is a “long list of unknowns” following the foreign troop departure, Betsy Fisher, director of strategy at the US-based International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), told Al Jazeera.

“There were tens of thousands of people with close US connections who were not able to leave through the US airlift,” she said. “That’s what we know. What we don’t know is basically everything else.”

Those questions, Fisher added, range from the logistical to the political: How will Afghans applying for SIVs appear for required in-person interviews? How will those seeking the newly created Priority-2 US refugee visas reach a third country, from which they are required to apply? Will any neighbouring third countries allow them in?

“And then, of course, there’s the question of safety,” Fisher told Al Jazeera. “Will the Taliban be targeting people? Will they be an effective police force? Will they hold true to any of their promises?”

Answers remain elusive for Ezatullah, who didn’t want to use his last hame. He told Al Jazeera he believes his father may be eligible for an SIV, having worked for 13 months for a contractor for the US and British militaries.

Ezatullah, originally from Laghman province in Afghanistan’s east, went to the Kabul airport at least seven times during the evacuation efforts, even a day after a bombing killed nearly 200 Afghans and 13 US military personnel.

His emails to the US and UK have gone unanswered.

“I don’t know what to do now,” he told Al Jazeera. “I don’t know other options there are. My father qualifies, he worked for them. He protected them.”

Numbers unclear

A full accounting of how many Afghans are at risk due to their work with foreign governments or organisations remains elusive. So is an accounting of how many Afghans have actually been evacuated – and under what conditions.

The US has said it has helped evacuate more than 123,000 civilians through Kabul airport, although that number includes those evacuated by US and “coalition aircraft”. During an 18-day period since August 15, when the Kabul fell to the Taliban, US aircraft lifted more than 79,000 civilians, including 73,500 third-country nationals and Afghan civilians, McKenzie said on Monday.

Earlier in the day, McKenzie added there were about 49,000 evacuated “passengers” awaiting “follow-on” movement at US installations in the Middle East and Europe. Another 13,000 were being housed at five installations in the US.

The US had previously said on Friday some 7,000 SIV holders had arrived in the US since the evacuations began.

Meanwhile, Matthew Soerens, US director of church mobilization at World Relief, said resettlement agencies in the US have been advised by the government to prepare for about 20,000 Afghans with SIVs arriving in the coming weeks, and about 50,000 arriving on various refugee statuses.

He added the situation is moving fast.

“We’ve been getting a few hours notice instead of, usually with the refugee resettlement process, a few weeks notice that a particular family is arriving,” he told Al Jazeera.

‘No fault of their own’

But Kim Staffieri, the co-founder and director of the Association of Wartime Allies (AWA), said her group believes there is a vast disparity in the number of Afghans the US has evacuated and the number they have a responsibility to help.

AWA estimates there was a total of about 75,000 to 80,000 Afghans eligible for SIVs when US evacuations began in late July, she said.

When accounting for those eligible for the P-2 visa, the expanded refugee category for former Afghan employees of US-based organisations, the estimate is about 250,000 Afghans who had not been evacuated as of August 25, the New York Times reported last week, citing data compiled by the AWA and American University.

Staffieri maintained that had the Biden administration heeded warnings from groups like hers, particularly about a need to begin evacuations earlier and address a “bottleneck” in the SIV application process, more Afghans would have been able to leave the country.

“I want people to understand that those folks who were waiting for chief of mission SIV approval or held up for other unknown reasons were left behind through no fault of their own,” she said.

“What I would really like to make clear to the American public is how many people the US government failed,” she said.

For his part, Amiri said just days after the Taliban entered Kabul on August 15, he was notified that his five-year-old SIV application was “still under review”.

He found more success with the UK government, who told him he was eligible for evacuation, but he was unable to gain access to British personnel in the crush of thousands of people gathered at the Kabul airport across several days of attempts.

“I tried my best, and I was very close to losing my one-and-a-half-year-old son,” he said. “I didn’t want to risk my children, it was so difficult.”

Instead, he returned to Kandahar on Sunday.

“Now, I’m waiting for a day to evacuate, maybe from a third country to the UK,” he told Al Jazeera.

“People who left were forced to leave without dignity or respect,” he added. “It’s all because of the mismanagement of the evacuation process.”