Afghan nationals who converged on Kabul expecting to be evacuated along with other partners of the United States now face a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek with the Taliban.
"I'm stucked in Kabul (sic) can't go to my hometown because the [Taliban] have their checkpoints on the roads, and recently the [Taliban] have killed an Afghan contractor who was with American[s] in Salang," one Afghan national wrote Tuesday in a message viewed by the Washington Examiner.
That message underscores the anxiety felt by the thousands of Afghans left behind when U.S. forces ended their evacuation operation and departed earlier this week. President Joe Biden's team maintains that the administration has "enormous leverage" in the form of financial incentives for the Taliban to honor their pledge to provide safe passage to Afghans who worked with Americans, but the families whose lives represent the test case are preparing for the worst — preparation made more nerve-wracking by the struggle to obtain reliable information or even make contact with American officials.
"What we need to know where are we supposed to be talking to who actually has the power to actually do something?" Jewish Family Service of Seattle chief executive Will Berkovitz, a rabbi whose organization works with the State Department to resettle refugees, told the Washington Examiner. "And the answer ‘we're working on it' isn't the answer you can be giving to people who are being hunted."
And yet that is the answer for now. "My goal, as I start to think about this next phase, is to try to make sure that whatever we do is sustainable, first and foremost, and to the degree necessary scalable . . . to meet the demand of these still-considerable populations," a senior State Department official said this week.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken's team believes that "the majority" of Afghan nationals who worked with the U.S. government were left behind despite their eligibility for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program. Pentagon officials estimated last Friday that about 7,000 of those visa applicants had reached safety, but the Islamic State bombing on Thursday created a major barrier to evacuating the rest of the eligible applicants — a total that reportedly could run as high as 100,000 people.
"The SIV program is obviously not — not designed to accommodate what we just did in evacuating, you know, over 100,000 people," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters Wednesday.
It also wasn't designed to accommodate 90,000 people whose association with the U.S. exposes them to the kinds of risks that forced U.S. officials to suspend operations at the embassy in Kabul and withdraw to Qatar.
"While we are currently unable to provide consular services for immigrant visas, including Special Immigrant Visas, in Afghanistan, we are developing processing alternatives so that we can continue to deliver this important service for the people of Afghanistan," a State Department spokesperson told the Washington Examiner. "This effort is of utmost importance to the U.S. government. "
In the meantime, Berkowitz's team is trying to help 27 different families, a total of 123 people, escape Afghanistan. Some of those families were assigned to his organization through a larger refugee resettlement agency after the State Department approved their applications to come to the U.S. Others were awaiting medical checks at the conclusion of the application process, while the remainder are "friends or former colleagues" of the Afghan employees of the organization.
"Many of them are in temporary housing," said Cordelia Revells, director of Refugee & Immigrant Services at JFS Seattle. "Some of the families, because they've received threats or they've heard of the Taliban asking specifically about them, going to relatives' homes, asking about them, they're moving around frequently. All of them are just trying to stay hidden and as safe as possible."
The path to safety might be most difficult for the families who came closest to evacuation. Three families, according to Revells, gave their passports to U.S. Embassy officials, hoping to receive visas after their applications were approved, only to lose their passports when the embassy team decamped to the Kabul airport.
Embassy staff "destroyed" the Afghan passports in their possession in order to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Taliban, according to U.S. lawmakers — but no one told the families, who have tried to contact the embassy but received no response, according to Revells.
"These families, if they have any hope of getting out, need passports," Revells said. "Even if they're trying to, you know, go through land borders to neighboring countries, they need a passport to do that . . . I sincerely hope the U.S. develops options for them."
Blinken's team is aware of that need. "Part of this process will be to ensure that they have a document, a travel document from us that the Taliban will recognize, because they have said that they will allow folks who have a legitimate travel document to evacuate," Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland told reporters Thursday. "So as I said, some already have that document, some have an electronic document, some we may need to work on building a named document, and we're looking at all of those things and working on them."
Those efforts may prove efficacious, but there has been little consolation forthcoming for people such as the Afghans working with JFS Seattle — whether because of a lack of communication, organization, or both, the resettlement team can't say. "We have not been informed of who the point organization or agency is for this effort," Revells said.
And so, the Afghans in Kabul hide and wait — stockpiling food and water when possible and minimizing their movements otherwise. They hope that Revells or someone else in the U.S. will advise on how to escape, even as they fear those communications will be detected by the Taliban.
"Ok ma'am, I think I'm left behind," the Afghan in Kabul wrote in another message authenticated by Revells. "I'm trying and asking everyone for a solution how I can get out of Afghanistan, anyways thank you for the updates."
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