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The 9/11 attacks of course, prompted the U.S. to strike Afghanistan and topple the Taliban regime that had given refuge to al-Qaida. Now as the U.S. withdraws its troops, the clock is ticking for Afghans who have worked with the U.S. and with other foreign governments. Special visa programs for Afghan employees are winding down. In order to qualify for these visas, applicants must demonstrate that they are in the Taliban's crosshairs. Most applicants truly are in danger. But many are desperately seeking a way out of the troubled country and are trying to game the system. NPR's Sean Carberry reports.
SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Ali is from Ghazni Province, one of the more violent places in Afghanistan. He's worked as a cook with various U.S. contractors since 2003. It's a career choice that's been good for his bank account but bad for his safety.
ALI: If I'm telling that I'm working for Americans, they're going to kill me.
CARBERRY: The they are the Taliban, who have long said they will kill any Afghans who work for foreign militaries or governments. To protect his family, Ali kept people in the dark about his work. He was successful until about a year ago. Since then, his brother has been beaten and his family threatened.
ALI: I'm trying to leave me and my family to any country who can give opportunity for us to be safe.
CARBERRY: So we asked his American supervisor, Hoppy Mazier, for a recommendation letter to apply for a special immigrant visa to the U.S. The program started in 2009, primarily for military interpreters, but it also applies to Afghan employees of any U.S. government agency or contractor.
HOPPY MAZIER: Some of our staff have almost been killed because of where they work and what they do.
CARBERRY: Mazier, who since left his job at a U.S. funding contractor, opens a folder on his computer. In it are some 70 recommendation letters he's written for former staff seeking U.S. visas. He says many employees like Ali face legitimate threats. But some provided him puffed-up threat statements to try to qualify for the special visa.
MAZIER: And once people hear that they have an option to leave Afghanistan, everyone's jumping on board.
CARBERRY: He says he's even been approached for letters by Afghans who never worked for him. In one case, he says officials in the Ministry of Finance asked him for letters. In exchange, they said they would go easy in their audit of his organization. Douglas Frantz is assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. He says as the December 31 deadline nears, demand for special immigrant visas is soaring. He admits some applicants exaggerate the danger they face.
DOUGLAS FRANTZ: It's a judgment call on whether this person presents evidence of a credible threat.
CARBERRY: He says the State Department errs on the side of leniency. But that hasn't meant an easy ride for applicants; quite the contrary. From the beginning, the special immigrant visa program was fraught with problems - long processing delays and seemingly arbitrary rejections. Some applicants were killed while waiting years for their visas. Frantz says that prompted recent reforms to the program.
FRANTZ: And what happened as a result of that was we cut the waiting time in half, down to a little less than eight months.
CARBERRY: Today more than 11,000 Afghans have been resettled in the U.S. Congress authorized additional visas this year, but not nearly enough for the thousands of potential applicants. And the U.S. isn't the only country confronting a surge of visa applicants. Australian Elijah Berry has worked in the security business in Afghanistan for years. He's come to know many Afghans in that time. And a good number have approached him for help getting a visa to Australia.
ELIJAH BERRY: They're pretty straightforward. They say, look, they need to know an Australian for visa purposes, et cetera. Some of them have offered generally around $10,000.
CARBERRY: Like Mazier experienced, those people didn't even work for Berry. And some of those who did are now presenting him threat letters allegedly from the Taliban, which he says aren't real but are from opportunists with counterfeit Taliban stamps.
BERRY: And they usually pay $200 to $400 U.S. dollars to be threatened.
CARBERRY: Compared to $25,000 to buy a fake visa to European country, it's a small amount to gamble on a chance to flee.
Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.