President Joe Biden has taken on a huge final responsibility for the U.S. before the end of the 20-year American mission in Afghanistan: controlling the airport in Kabul, the most important exit point for tens of thousands of Afghans who do not want to live under the Taliban.
But there is growing evidence that Biden’s plan could leave behind many vulnerable Afghans ― dooming people to repression and potential death. Some U.S. evacuation flights are departing with empty seats even as desperate Afghans cluster at the airport gates. And Afghans can’t simply fly out on their own. Few commercial operators are currently able to run flights in or out of Kabul at all.
With more than 5,000 American troops guarding the airport, military and State Department officials are deciding who can enter the facility and determining the schedule for all flights. American officials are also liaising with the Taliban to prevent the militant group from attacking the airport and organizing evacuation flights that are intended to carry up to 9,000 people out per day, including Americans, other foreign nationals and some Afghans. On Thursday, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said the United States had evacuated 7,000 people since Saturday.
Advocates for people at risk of being left behind say the Biden administration needs to quickly improve its strategy for evacuations before the president’s final withdrawal deadline of Aug. 31.
“We are absolutely struggling and stunned at the world community’s inability and unwillingness to evacuate us,” said Arash Azizzada, an Afghan American organizer with the group Afghans For a Better Tomorrow who is helping Afghans flee. Having empty seats on evacuation flights leaving Kabul is “unacceptable & beyond the fucking pale,” he tweeted.
Whether Biden adapts to help more Afghans leave the country will have tremendous ramifications, said Noah Gottschalk, the global policy lead at Oxfam America, an aid organization.
“The Biden administration has some hard decisions to make about whether they want to actually do what’s necessary, which is an all-out, no-holds-barred effort to save lives, or whether they can live with a human catastrophe unfolding on their watch,” he told HuffPost.
No Route To Safety
On Tuesday morning, two days after the Taliban took over Kabul, an Afghan man stuffed the documents that prove he worked with American forces into his shoes and headed to the airport. (HuffPost will refer to him by his first initial, F., for security reasons.)
He soon found himself in the middle of chaos: warning shots from American forces, a swelling crowd and a rush of Taliban sympathizers. Fearing for his life, he rushed home.
F. has been trying to get a U.S. visa for five years, and he previously supplied the U.S. embassy in Kabul with documents such as recommendation letters and his contract for working with American forces. Now, the only way he can escape probable retribution for that work is by getting help from U.S. officials at the airport ― risking his life along the way.
Between Taliban checkpoints and intense American security measures, even being considered for evacuation is out of reach for many people. Biden aides argue they have limited influence on the situation. On Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the United States had Taliban assurances that civilians could safely travel to the airport, but a separate message from the agency advising American citizens to go to the facility noted, “THE U.S. GOVERNMENT CANNOT GUARANTEE YOUR SECURITY AS YOU MAKE THIS TRIP.”
Price and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman have offered mixed messages on whether the U.S. believes the Taliban will permit any civilians to travel to the airport or only American nationals.
When asked for clarification, a State Department spokesperson said in an email, “While the Taliban have so far largely kept their pledge to allow safe passage for civilians to travel to Hamid Karzai International Airport, we are not relying on trust alone. … We have seen the reports of the Taliban establishing checkpoints and intimidating people en route to the airport.” The spokesperson added that U.S. authorities have “raised those incidents with the Taliban and are working to resolve those issues.”
The Biden administration said U.S.-aligned Afghans should wait to come to the airfield until they receive messages telling them to do so.
F. told HuffPost that at least 12 of his former co-workers have received phone calls from the Americans and have gone to the facility. But that is only an initial step, and even making it there seems far-fetched to him.
“I don’t know how they could go to the airport. This is magic,” he said.
F. is now in hiding. But he is desperately trying to flag his application for officials via emails and tweets in hopes that he will get a call in the next few days. After the last American troops leave, “I am sure most of us will be left behind,” he said.
Some of the most vulnerable Afghans cannot even leave their homes to attempt to file cases with the remaining American diplomats at the airport, according to Aisha Rahmat, a former office worker with the American mission who came to the United States in 2019 after waiting three years for a visa.
Her three younger sisters and her mother, who also worked with American forces as a cleaner, are still in Kabul, sheltering behind closed doors for fear of being spotted by the Taliban. They do not have a man in the family ― Rahmat’s father died in 2016 ― so they are relying on neighbors to buy them groceries.
“They’re trying to tell me to not panic, but I know my mom. When I’m talking with her ... I can see the fear she has,” Rahmat said.
Waiting for improvements in the U.S. approach or more information about better options comes with real costs. The Taliban is already pursuing vulnerable women and Afghans who worked with the American mission, according to the United Nations. The group has killed at least five translators this week, Rebecca Heller of the International Refugee Assistance Program told the Associated Press.
The insurgents will likely only get more confident in their impunity for human rights violations as they amass power, particularly once global attention shifts to other international crises. U.S. military officials said they expect the situation in Kabul to “change rapidly.”
There are three main ways for Afghans to qualify for a new life in the United States. One is to be granted official refugee status by the U.N. Another is to secure a special immigrant visa for people who helped American forces in the country. The third is to obtain the newly created “Priority 2” refugee status for Afghans who worked for American contractors, taxpayer-funded projects or media outlets, and are now outside Afghanistan.
Securing the many documents necessary to apply for admission under these categories or to other countries willing to accept Afghan refugees was already challenging due to the coronavirus pandemic, the withdrawal of Americans who could issue the paperwork, and Afghanistan’s corrupt bureaucracy. It’s nearly impossible now, Afghans say. Many doubt it is even safe to keep those papers in their homes because of the possibility of Taliban searches. Meanwhile, it’s extremely unlikely that they can leave Afghanistan for a third country to apply for the Priority 2 visas.
Humanitarian groups said officials processing refugee applications have not worked nearly as fast as they could have.
Gottschalk, the Oxfam official, said the Biden administration’s approach appeared “very slow, with a very low level of ambition.”
“We are hearing so much frustration from immigrant communities who feel that their energy and effort was a huge part of electing a president who promised to welcome refugees … and yet now, we’re seeing President Biden implement what are basically Trump-light immigration policies,” he added.
The president’s fear of political criticism over accepting large numbers of refugees is widely understood to be a key reason for his approach.
Biden administration officials argue that they’re moving as quickly as possible.
“We have explored every avenue that we can to bring as many people to safety as we can,” Price, the State Department spokesperson, said at a press briefing on Wednesday. He noted that no interviews for the special immigrant visas had taken place in the final year of the Trump administration, which gutted the State Department and directed the entire federal government to minimize immigration into the United States.
But Price did not answer a question about whether the U.S. would drop the requirement for Afghans to be located elsewhere to apply for Priority 2 status.
One U.S. official told HuffPost it seems increasingly likely that Biden will decide that he is only willing to carry out a very limited evacuation and that he can publicly justify leaving behind many of the estimated 100,000 Afghans eligible for the currently open visas.
In a Monday letter, 46 senators urged Biden to put more resources into processing refugee applications and to create a new humanitarian parole category for members of Afghan civil society such as activists, lawmakers and judges.
The category could benefit thousands of people who are Taliban targets but never worked for the United States, including Afghans associated with groups like Oxfam, which largely do not take American funding for ethical reasons. The president has legal authority to allow people into the country as a matter of parole.
“There are lots of people I know who worked for Save the Children or contractors,” Rahmat said. “The Taliban will kill them because they say, why are you working for Christian people or helping other foreigners?”
Now living in Colorado, she hopes the United States will adjust its visa application process to help people like her mother and sisters. Like them, many Afghans do not have valid passports; the last time they sought them, an Afghan official demanded a $500 bribe, and it’s been difficult for Rahmat to transfer money over. But they do have electronic IDs ― a form of identification she hopes immigration officials will begin to accept instead of a travel document.
She also wants the Biden administration to ease its requirements for evidence of past work with Americans. That would aid someone like her mother, who has a recommendation letter and is in contact with her former supervisor but previously decided to not even try for a visa since she didn’t have a human resources letter.
Rahmat is keen to support her family. She lost her job last spring due to the pandemic and had to leave Los Angeles because of the cost of living, but found a new position in the fall. Two of her sisters are teachers, she said, and they will be able to start work soon. As for her mother and her 15-year-old sister?
“They need some support and they might not be working, but I trust them,” she said, adding that they will become self-sufficient, too, if they just get the chance.
Warning: The photo below contains graphic content.
Afghans’ Future In American Hands
Many Afghans sought safety on their own. But because of the United States’ choices, their future is now in American hands.
An Afghan official told HuffPost he bought plane tickets on a commercial airline on Saturday night, hours before the Taliban entered Kabul, and on Sunday he set off for the airport. As he and his family walked the last five kilometers to the facility, without any belongings, he thought to himself, “In a matter of a few days, I have lost my career, my home and my country.”
In the midst of pandemonium at the airport, the family boarded their flight. They were forced off within hours because U.S.-trained Afghan forces and staff left the airport. Once Americans took charge, they paused commercial flights.
With the Taliban controlling the key land routes out of Afghanistan, flying out of Kabul is the last relatively safe option for at-risk Afghans ― an especially distressing fact for people who are far from the capital.
The U.S. has already lost one opportunity to operate additional flights, analysts noted, by withdrawing from its huge Bagram airbase. That was necessary due to how few American troops there were in the country by the summer, Mark Milley, chair of the joint chiefs of staff, argued on Wednesday.
In addition to flights by the U.S. government and allied countries, the Biden administration now controls whether airlines and privately organized charter flights can help Afghans leave. Those flights are vital for Afghans who do not have Western passports or special visas ― and advocates for refugees want as many of them to flee as possible.
“Kabul airport is the only lifeline left for the Afghan people,” said the Afghan official, who wanted to remain anonymous due to security reasons. “If the U.S. still considers itself an ally of the Afghan people, it must keep the airport open until all of those whose lives are in danger are able to fly out.”
On Tuesday, Price said the U.S. aims to permit commercial flights.
“The re-initiation of commercial operations … would add tremendous capacity to those seeking to relocate from Afghanistan,” he said.
Price has also said that the administration is aware of charter flights being organized by nonprofits.
If the U.S. did more to organize commercial flights, it could also address the issue of empty seats on the flights leaving Kabul. While the U.S. processes Afghans eligible for its own evacuations, other Afghans could head elsewhere. The Afghan official identified three big issues that need to be addressed in order to accelerate the flow of commercial flights: providing a fire safety team; organizing a way for Afghans to get the coronavirus tests that many international airlines now require before boarding; and pushing insurance companies to provide war coverage for flights.
The Biden administration should increase both government and private flights, said Azizzada, the Afghan American organizer, while other countries should respond to the outflow of Afghans by easing visa restrictions.
“Our biggest ask right now for the Biden administration and the world community is open your door,” he said.
Earlier this week, Biden suggested that the United States could prolong the evacuation by extending its deployment to the airport beyond Aug. 31, although Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, told reporters Thursday that there has been no decision to change the deadline.
If the U.S. does extend its deployment, it would permit more time for advocates to organize flights for vulnerable Afghans. But there’s still anger that they have to take on that task.
“We are seeing an outpouring of support from private citizens who are stepping up with pledges to support efforts like the Great Allied Airlift,” Oxfam’s Gottschalk said. “While this is inspiring, it’s frustrating that it’s even necessary. It’s frankly insulting that the government is deciding not to allocate the vast resources it has to do this.”