Khan’s family is under threat, he’s no longer going to his job site, and he’s swapping sleeping schedules with his pregnant wife to keep watch.
That is the new reality sinking in for Afghans working for the United States in Afghanistan who may be Taliban targets once the US military withdraws.
There are about 18,000 people who have applied for special immigrant visas to the US who are still awaiting approval, according to a State Department official. But how quickly they can move through the red tape built into the program is unclear, given thorough and years-long vetting that often takes place before a visa is granted.
For many, that time could be a matter of life and death.
“Due to high risk from Taliban and target killing, the company which I am working with told me that I should not go to my job site for a short time. Instead, I stay up nights keeping watch to see if anyone is trying to plant a bomb around my house, and my wife does the same by day while I sleep,” Khan said in a statement to CNN, shared through his attorney Julie Kornfeld.
“I cannot go to city for shopping and hospital for treatment. If I go, I wear turban, surgical mask and glasses to be safe from targeting,” he added. CNN is only using his middle name for concerns over his security.
Khan has worked for two different US companies contracted by the Defense Department in Afghanistan for more than six years and applied for a special immigrant visa (SIV) three years ago, according to Kornfeld.
Biden’s announcement last week that the US will withdraw troops marks the end of the decades-long war, which has taken a deadly toll on the people of Afghanistan, many of whom have risked it all to help the United States fight for their own democracy. Translators are among them, providing a key link to the thousands of military and US government contractors.
“We’re expecting the security situation to rapidly deteriorate for anyone who’s seen as opposing the Taliban. That will certainly include translators and other employees of the US government,” said Betsy Fisher, director of strategy at International Refugee Assistance Project.
The visa program, established in 2009, is intended for Afghan citizens, along with their spouses and unmarried children under 21, who work for the US government in Afghanistan. It is a distinct program and doesn’t count toward the refugee cap, which the White House has recently come under scrutiny over.
Thousands of Afghans, including interpreters for the US military and contractors, have moved to the United States via the visa. The average time to process the visas is an arduous and lengthy process; in recent years the processing for each approved applicant has taken more than 500 days, according to State Department data reviewed by CNN.
Abdul, an Afghan national, fled his country fearing he might be killed because he worked as an engineer for the US government in Afghanistan.
“I left everything,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I left my family and my colleagues and it was very painful for me.”
Abdul requested CNN call him by an alias to protect his identity because he says his life is in danger from insurgents he fears are still hunting him down.
‘Eyes and ears’
The US diplomatic mission in Afghanistan would be impossible without the local partners and translators, US diplomats say.
“They are our eyes and ears. They have all the contacts we benefit from. They set up meetings and they know the power brokers,” explained one US diplomat who recently served in Afghanistan. “They are also our continuity because the turnover of US diplomats every year is about 90 percent.”
Many of the translators have family members they are also worried about, US diplomats told CNN. It is the fear for their family that has led some of them to finally apply to a program they hoped they would never have to use.
“These are resilient and determined people. They thought peace was coming so they did not think they would have to go to the US. Now with the Taliban’s possible return they have no other option,” said a second US diplomat.
A State Department spokesperson said they are well aware of the risks facing translators and others.
“Everyone involved in this process, whether in Washington or at our embassies abroad, is fully aware of the contributions of our Afghan colleagues and the risks they face. As Secretary (Antony) Blinken said, we have a commitment to those who worked with us and helped us, whether it was our military or our diplomats, and we’re committed to moving forward on the Special Immigrant Visa program for them,” the spokesperson said.
The process has slowed down over the last year as the Covid-19 pandemic shut down a tremendous amount of travel: In fiscal year 2019, the State Department issued 9,741 SIVs to Afghans, but in fiscal year 2020 they only issued 1,799 of the visas, according to State Department data.
There were “hundreds and hundreds of visas” that expired, because no one could depart the country to come to the US, according to Lindsey Sharp with the International Rescue Committee. The embassy in Afghanistan “finally” restarted some processing and reissued expired visas, Sharp said, but capacity is still limited.
“Covid, for the last year, has kind of ground issuance to a halt,” she said. “The backlogs now are large.”
The State Department says they have now increased resources and taken steps to prioritize applications from interpreters and translators, with extra consideration for those who helped in combat operations, according to the spokesperson. Those efforts include a temporary increase in consular staffing at the US Embassy in Kabul to assist with the visas.
Janis Shinwari — who used to be an Afghan interpreter working alongside troops, and likely saved the life of one of those troops, before arriving in the US in 2013 via the SIV program — said he’s received hundreds of messages through Facebook, both personally and through his group’s page, No One Left Behind.
“Since people heard of this news that the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan, I’m receiving hundreds of messages, like Facebook messages, from my friends, from other people who served as an interpreter or translator or contractors in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said. “The people are asking for help.”
Shinwari has had a hard time keeping up with the messages because of the constant flow: “What do I tell them?” he said.
While working as an interpreter in Afghanistan, Shinwari lived on the US base, not only for work but as his protection, he explained. Without that, he’d be at risk.
“These interpreters, they’re the breadwinner of a big family,” he said. “If the breadwinner dies, the whole family dies.”
Concern from lawmakers
Members of Congress have also shared concerns about the future of those who have helped the US mission in Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of 16 House lawmakers, including several who have served in the US military and at the State Department, sent a letter to the President urging the administration to commit to the Afghan people who assisted the United States on the ground.
“We must provide a path to safety for those who loyally worked alongside U.S. troops, diplomats, and contractors, and work with our international partners to provide options for Afghans who would face a credible fear of persecution if the Taliban return to power,” wrote Democratic Reps. Jason Crow, Ami Bera, Earl Blumenauer, Jared Golden, Sara Jacobs, Andy Kim, Tom Malinowski, Seth Moulton, Stephanie Murphy and Adam Schiff and Republican Reps. Don Bacon, Neal Dunn, Adam Kinzinger, Peter Meijer, Michael Waltz and Brad Wenstrup.
“This effort advances our vital national security interests by demonstrating to the world the manner in which we treat our partners,” said the lawmakers, who announced they would form the “Honoring Our Promises Working Group” focused on crafting legislation to expand and expedite the SIV program and coordinate with the administration.
Republican Rep. Mike Waltz of Florida, who served in Afghanistan as a Special Forces officer, said he’s been hearing from Afghans, many of whom have worked with the US for years, “in a state of panic.”
“I had an interpreter executed while in line waiting for a SIV visa, along with several of his cousins and brothers. So they really are taking their entire extended family’s lives in their hands, and they’re now just abandoned. So this notion that we can go back, you know, whenever we need to after abandoning our local partners, it’s a lie, it’s just not true,” Waltz added.
Blumenauer, a Democrat of Oregon and longtime supporter of the SIV program, told CNN he plans to share his concerns with the administration.
“I personally feel and will be communicating to them that I hope one of the unintended consequences is not putting people at risk who literally risked their lives to help Americans, as translators, truck drivers … We have an obligation to get this right,” he said.
Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, also a long-time supporter of the SIV program, said in a statement she was “disheartened by the President’s decision, which I believe not only risks the hard-fought gains in Afghanistan, but also puts Afghans in danger who have been critical partners in supporting the US.”