In recent weeks, the Taliban have launched a massive house-to-house search in Kabul and other Afghan cities, in what a Taliban spokesperson called a “cleaning operation” to look for weapons and criminals. But thousands of Afghans fear they are about to be persecuted because of their links to the country’s former, Western-backed government, or to U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan over the past 20 years.
According to a recent report by the Association of Wartime Allies, about 78,000 people who applied for Special Immigrant Visas that would allow them to leave the country are still in Afghanistan — a majority of the SIV-eligible applicants. (The State Department was unable to provide an exact number of applicants who were left behind in Afghanistan.) They are now in danger of being targeted by the Taliban, who have effectively taken over as Afghanistan’s government, because they worked with the U.S. in the past two decades.
After the Taliban swept into the capital on Aug. 15, thousands of Afghans flocked to Kabul’s airport in search of a way out. More than 76,000 Afghans have arrived in the U.S. in this wave of evacuations, out of whom 3,290 were SIV holders and 36,821 were SIV applicants, according to a Department of Homeland Security report.
One man in Afghanistan who spoke with HuffPost said he barely feels free to leave his home. “My pulse quickens as I approach a Taliban checkpoint,” said the man, whom HuffPost will call Amir. “By looking at you, they terrify you. You want to avoid them at all costs.”
Fear Of Retribution
The Taliban’s house searches started amid the heat of the Ukraine crisis. “The world’s attention is now on Ukraine,” Shawn VanDiver, the founder and board chair of AfghanEvac, a coalition of organizations helping at-risk Afghans relocate and resettle, told HuffPost. ”The Taliban took advantage of that. They started doing mass searches and beating people, and people are being abducted.”
People who worked with the U.S. in any fashion are particularly at risk, and the U.S. government has left many of them stranded and vulnerable.
Congress created the SIV program in 2006 for Iraqi and Afghan translators. The Afghanistan Allies Protection Act of 2009 extended SIV eligibility to Afghan citizens working for or on behalf of the U.S. government. In 2015, new legislation brought Afghan members of the International Security Assistance Force into the program. The influx of applications quickly led to a backlog that never cleared. Meanwhile, as the application process dragged on, U.S. government interpreters and employees faced retaliation.
Amir, himself an SIV applicant, told HuffPost he is afraid to be identified by the Taliban. Worried about repercussions, he asked that his real name not appear in this article. “I don’t want to be caught,” he said.
His American connections failed to get him out of Kabul during the chaotic August evacuation. “With the final plane out of Afghanistan went our hope,” he said.
Amir worked for years on a project for the U.S. Agency for International Development in a remote part of Afghanistan. But his travels are now limited to a nearby grocery store because of the fear and anxiety that pervades his city.
His family is also a part of this ordeal, particularly his wife and two daughters. Their normal life has disappeared. No one leaves the house. Children no longer attend school or play in the nearby playground.
Now that the Taliban have begun a broad door-to-door search in Kabul and other cities, tensions are much higher. Last week, members of the group stormed Amir’s apartment. They searched every inch of his property and grilled him with questions. Had he answered them truthfully, it might have put his family in jeopardy.
“They asked where I work,” Amir said. He had the foresight to evade the question and conceal certain relevant papers. “I acted normal and tried to comply. I lied about my past, and tried to keep my lies consistent throughout their questioning.”
Amir applied for an SIV in late 2019. It took a year for him to receive his first approvals, and he was hoping to have an interview before the fall of Kabul. “Nothing has moved in my case since then,” he said.
Normally, SIV applicants face a lengthy wait to enter the U.S., as they must jump through various hoops to get the necessary paperwork and visas. Because there is no U.S. operation on the ground in Afghanistan, the processing has to take place outside of the country.
The U.S. State Department says it is working on addressing the problem. “We are reducing the processing time for SIV-eligible Afghans, while keeping in place our robust security and medical screening processes,” a department spokesperson told HuffPost.
Relocation efforts, meanwhile, have been stalled for many months. From late September to early December, Qatar Airways operated one or two chartered flights per week between Kabul and Doha, Qatar, to move qualified Afghans. Although Qatar announced the resumption of flights in late January, only one aircraft has left Kabul since then. In late February, the Taliban halted the flights again, saying that no evacuation operations would be permitted until the lives of Afghan refugees improved.
“They are trying everything they can,” VanDiver said, referring to the U.S. government’s efforts to relocate Afghans left behind. However, the relocation process largely relies on the Taliban government’s cooperation with the U.S., which has so far been found wanting. “The Taliban is in charge of Afghanistan right now,” VanDiver said. “We don’t have an official relationship with the Taliban. It seems like things are not working out well between them right now.”
“Coordinating flights out of Kabul International Airport continues to be challenging,” the State Department spokesperson told HuffPost. “The Department of State continues to support the departure of U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents (LPRs), and our Afghan allies and their eligible family members.” The spokesperson declined to share details of these efforts, citing safety and operational considerations.
A considerable number of SIV applicants have subsequently relocated to other countries, due to the cessation of flights from Afghanistan. But that’s not an option for most Afghans. It costs a lot to travel abroad and stay for months, and the U.S. government does not cover such expenses. Amir said many SIV candidates simply can’t afford to go that route.
The issuing of Afghan passports has also been on extended hold under the Taliban, making it very hard to get one. Obtaining a visa to visit a nearby country might take months.
The State Department spokesperson told HuffPost that in the coming months, the majority of SIV and refugee processing for Afghans under Operation Allies Welcome will take place at transit bases in Doha. This process, according to the department, will permit more people to enter the United States with a durable immigration status and go immediately to their new communities, ultimately making the transition to their new lives in the U.S. easier.
“We are starting to implement these changes now and reforms will be phased in, in the coming weeks and months,” the spokesperson said. “We are acting with a sense of urgency to expedite these processes and improve the experience of our Afghan allies as they move through these steps.”
Nevertheless, with so many applications in the SIV pipeline, this is expected to be a lengthy process. “Just like Vietnam, this is going to take years,” VanDiver said. “We’ve heard from the National Security Council and others that this is a multiyear plan and it’s going to be resourced over many years.”
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Afghans are mired in other processes and face an even more uncertain future than the SIV applicants, including P1/P2 referrals through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for certain Afghan nationals who are ineligible for SIV but have U.S. ties, and humanitarian parole for other at-risk Afghans. Approximately 12,000 at-risk Afghans have been stuck in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, for months, waiting to be relocated to the United States or another final destination.
This uncertainty might linger months, if not years, for Amir and the thousands of others still trapped in Afghanistan. For the time being, they have no choice but to stay and await an update on their situation.