RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
U.S. troops may have left Afghanistan, but the work of getting vulnerable people out of the country isn't over. At a hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken again defended the fast U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and he told lawmakers the administration is committed to evacuating the U.S. citizens and Afghans still desperate to leave.
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ANTONY BLINKEN: We will continue to help Americans and Afghans to whom we have a special commitment depart Afghanistan if they choose.
MARTIN: But just choosing to leave isn't enough. There are still many Afghans who fear reprisals from the Taliban, but they don't have the proper documentation to get out of the country, and now they can't get that documentation because there's no U.S. presence on the ground. One of these Afghans is a man we're calling Khan (ph) to protect his identity. Steve Inskeep talked to him a few weeks ago, and Khan told him about driving from his home in Kandahar to Kabul, 11 hours away, for one final interview before getting the visa in his passport and getting on a plane.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: This is painful to hear because you are telling me that you were approved for a visa to come to the United States.
INSKEEP: You were just waiting on some paperwork.
KHAN: Yes, yes.
INSKEEP: You were in Kabul just as the United States began an evacuation from the Kabul airport, and you've had to leave and drive across the country to wait for an email from the U.S. Embassy.
MARTIN: That was three weeks ago. We called Khan back to see if anything had changed.
What have you heard? Have you heard anything since then?
KHAN: I heard nothing, nothing from anyone.
MARTIN: Thousands of Afghans are in similar situations, but what's so striking about Khan's story is what he put on the line for the United States. Khan worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military from late 2004 to mid-2008. He was embedded with U.S. troops at several forward operating bases and says he routinely went on combat missions in Taliban-controlled areas.
KHAN: We were lucky we survived. We survived, like, around 12 ambushes.
MARTIN: As the years wore on, he started to feel less safe, as someone who'd been so directly involved in the U.S. war. So in 2014, he applied for a special immigrant visa to get out, and you know the rest of the story. He was so close. But then the Taliban took over, and the U.S. Embassy shut down. And he's heard nothing since.
KHAN: That makes you feel disappointed. That makes you feel left behind. That makes you feel you will be shot and dead. Every day you're living in Kandahar, where all the Taliban's around you, that makes you feel you have no hope for nothing. You hear nothing over a month.
MARTIN: So it's been a couple of weeks now - a few weeks since the Taliban took over the country. Can you describe what has changed?
KHAN: Kandahar life is different, totally different. Peoples are scared, especially those who worked with the U.S. or other foreign troops. I have seen people - they were captured, like, the Taliban or whoever they are. They went to their home late at night and they get you out. And some of them are returned back. Some of them are not yet been returned or released.
MARTIN: When we spoke with you earlier, you said that you were being targeted because of your work with the U.S. military. Do people in your neighborhood know this about you? Do they know that you worked for the U.S.?
KHAN: I shifted from my home. I'm living in a different place at one of the plazas or a small apartment. So in here, nobody knows what I'm doing or where I was working. At the neighborhood where I was, it was 100% risky and I couldn't stay there.
MARTIN: Did you bring your family, too, to the apartment?
KHAN: Yes, yes, my family's...
KHAN: My three kids and wife.
MARTIN: So at least you feel safer there and anonymous.
KHAN: Anonymous and safe and hidden till I hear something from the U.S.
MARTIN: Do you know where to get those answers? I mean, do you know anyone to call or email?
KHAN: Yes, I know someone. It's asking God to help me. That's it. I - that's all I have - that's all I hope I have. There's no one else I can call, I can email, I can contact. No one else. No one. I just have to keep praying, see what happens.
MARTIN: Is it an option to cross the border into Pakistan?
KHAN: I don't know. I never thought of something like that because the interpreters who were crossing the border at the time of the old government - who were crossing the border, they were captured by Pakistan government, and they were interrogated. So now I don't know. If I have no option in getting killed, maybe that would be my last option.
MARTIN: What do you tell your family, your wife and your kids?
KHAN: Man, this - it hurts too much. They keep calling every five minutes or 10 minutes that I'm OK when they go out of the home. I keep them telling that one day we will be out. That's all I have hope for them.
MARTIN: Can you imagine staying there, I mean, if you're forced to or if the wait just goes on and on?
KHAN: There's no other option. You are fully at risk, and you have to stay here. Like, you feel you did something wrong. I feel I did something wrong, and that's why maybe I am left behind. Why did I help the U.S. Army? Why was I risking my whole life being in job as interpreter? I feel I shouldn't have done this.
MARTIN: Mariam Masumi was listening in on my conversation with Khan.
Is this a story you're hearing a lot right now?
MARIAM MASUMI: Yes, it definitely is.
MARTIN: She's an immigration lawyer in Virginia and also happens to be Afghan American.
MASUMI: I have clients that I'm representing in Afghanistan right now who are in various stages of their immigration process. I have a couple who were in a situation just like Khan, where they attended an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul but were just waiting on their visa to be issued in their passport. And then I have others who are in different phases of their immigration case - some of them were documentarily qualified or just had a pending case that required some more submission of documents - who are also in Afghanistan, waiting to see what the next steps are for the processing of their cases.
MARTIN: That process is intense. The Biden administration says it's doing careful vetting to make sure potential extremists don't get into the U.S. Applicants have to fill out dozens of pages of documents and get referral letters from their former supervisors, but those people can be really hard to track down. Then there are more documents, and more U.S. agencies have to weigh in, and then finally, an in-person interview
MASUMI: Even after that interview, there is a significant amount of wait time because there is background checks that are done. And these background checks are very detailed, and they're really done in order to determine that the applicant has no ties to militant or terrorist groups. And it can take months or even years to complete that process.
MARTIN: Is there any allowance made for Afghans who are in real and imminent danger. As Khan describes, you know, having worked for the U.S. military, he's had to move locations in his town for fear of being outed to the Taliban. Is there a way to fast-track people who are in that kind of situation?
MASUMI: At this point, unfortunately, there isn't. The State Department has announced that now that the U.S. troops have withdrawn, they're going to come up with a process and a procedure to assist those individuals, but there have been no details released about that.
MARTIN: And what about going over land into Pakistan, which is right on the border with Kandahar in the south, where Khan is? Is that risky if you don't have permissions from the third country to move on?
MARTIN: At this point, it's very risky. The current reports state that the Taliban are only allowing individuals with valid travel documents or visas to leave the country. So if an individual like Khan wanted to try to go through land into another country, I imagine it'd be very dangerous for them if they're not able to present the documentation that might be expected of them.
MARTIN: What do you need from the U.S. government?
MASUMI: There definitely needs to be a more streamlining of the process by which individuals are taking advantage of certain immigration benefits - for instance, with humanitarian parole. The only way that you can take advantage of humanitarian parole is by appearing at a U.S. Embassy for biometrics and an interview. They're the U.S. government. They might be able to waive that or come up with an alternate procedure to allow individuals from inside of Afghanistan to get the documents that they need to present at an airport that's run by the Taliban to leave the country.
MARTIN: It's not clear whether that's something the State Department is considering at this point, although Secretary Blinken says the department is committed to streamlining the Special Immigrant Visa program. We emailed a State Department official who's involved in Afghan immigration cases and asked what options these people have. The official pointed out that Afghans with valid passports might be able to get into Pakistan without the U.S. visa. But then what about Afghans without passports? That same official pointed out that by requiring an in-person interview for a visa, the U.S. has created a policy that tacitly encourages people to cross borders without proper documents in order to get somewhere with a U.S. consulate.
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MARTIN: The bottom line, according to this official, reads like a line out of Kafka. Quote, "you can't get approved until you get out of Afghanistan, and you can't get out of Afghanistan until you have paperwork showing you've been approved."
(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA'S "THE CHOICE")
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