With just three days until the U.S. military was scheduled to fly out of Afghanistan for good, thousands of its Afghan allies were still outside Kabul’s airport gates, some hours away from the city, all unable to reach the life-saving flights leaving the country each hour.
Since flights began in late July, the U.S. has welcomed at least 7,000 Afghans eligible for special visas due to their work with Americans during the war — interpreters, cultural advisers and others — a fraction of the thousands who had applied to the visa program.
But at least hundreds of Afghan allies have also been turned away from the airport in recent days, either by Taliban fighters or by U.S. soldiers at the airport gates, as admission instructions and the security situation fluctuated over the last week and a half, according to several people who spoke to Spectrum News.
“Getting every single person out can't be guaranteed,” President Joe Biden acknowledged in a speech Thursday.
Yet federal officials throughout the week highlighted the large number of people evacuated in recent days — more than 109,000 as of Friday afternoon, the majority of which are Afghans — and in those same public statements repeatedly committed to aiding Afghans who served American troops.
Meanwhile, thousands of those Afghan partners remain in Afghanistan, fearing retribution from the Taliban for their service as obstacles stand in the way of their evacuation.
“Yesterday I was in Taliban custody for five hours,” one interpreter named Omid told Spectrum News in a Whatsapp message Friday.
Omid, who finished his work for the U.S. in early 2020, tried to reach the airport several times this week, but the sheer size of crowds outside the gates made it nearly impossible, especially when some entrances closed periodically or restricted access to Americans.
He had decided to go home on Thursday due to security warnings when Taliban members asked to see his identification.
“They didn’t accept my documents,” he said. “[When] I told one of them I need to go home, he slapp[ed] me in my face.”
Several Afghans told Spectrum News they had seen the Taliban beating people at checkpoints near the airport and therefore didn’t try to approach, even with documents showing they worked for the U.S. Some militants also began charging Afghans as much as $1,000 for safe passage to the airport.
Starting Monday, U.S. soldiers began periodically prioritizing American citizens and green card holders, therefore turning away Afghans even who were eligible for special visas because they worked with the United States. It’s unclear how many Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants were denied during those periods.
Other interpreters never received relocation notices in their email at all, despite being in the visa pipeline. Those emails became necessary to make it through the airport gates as the evacuation went on.
“I have everything. All my documents are complete,” said an interpreter who asked to be called by the first letter of his name, F, so he wasn’t identified by the Taliban.
“I will not go and I respect the decision of the authorities,” F added in a message on Tuesday.
One day earlier, Taliban members knocked on his parents’ door and took his father for questioning, asking about his “infidel American son.”
“They took my father and warned him: We will punish your son for his deeds,” F said, which caused him to flee to Kabul by bus. “[Me] and my wife became same as the moving dead.”
The exact number of Afghan allies — or SIVs — that will be left behind is unclear, though the number is certainly in the thousands.
A Pentagon official confirmed Friday that more than 6,500 SIVs, which includes applicants and their families, had reached military bases in the United States.
Another small group had already moved on from a base — nearly half of the 1,647 Afghans brought to Fort Lee in Virginia, which was the first military property to welcome SIVs — announced Gen. Glen VanHerck, who leads U.S. Northern Command.
The numbers indicate that at least 7,000 SIVs had reached the U.S. as of Friday afternoon, though more are likely en route, official said.
Still, the number is a small percentage of the SIV applicant pool, which exceeded 80,000 people with family members estimated for. The latest data publicly available was provided in the State Department’s spring report.
The department on Friday would not provide an exact number of SIVs evacuated, including after multiple requests from Spectrum News, but instead said they contacted many of them in recent days.
“We have reached out to thousands upon thousands,” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Friday.
Gen. VanHerck acknowledged that among the 100,000 Afghans flown out so far, SIVs “have not been in excess of 50%.”
“Who are they taking?” said Matt Zeller, co-founder of the advocacy group No One Left Behind. “These SIVs are being abandoned.”
The U.S. military is still evacuating people on multiple flights per day, including some SIVs, and they will continue to do so “until the very end” of the Aug. 31 deadline, Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, who oversees logistics, said Friday.
U.S. officials have repeatedly affirmed their commitment to SIVs in recent days, often mentioning them as a core group included in evacuation numbers. President Biden himself said in an interview with ABC News that the U.S. was looking at prioritizing “between 50,000 and 65,000 folks total.”
Asked Wednesday about the disconnect between positive public statements about evacuation metrics and the many SIVs still reporting obstacles, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: “I wouldn’t see it as a disconnect.”
“A great number of people are making their way into the airport and onto flights,” she added. “There are certainly cases and incidents that we have heard … where individuals are not getting through, that should get through. And we are approaching those and addressing those on a case-by-case basis.”
The actual number of Afghans left behind who would be eligible for U.S. protection could be much greater.
The Association of Wartime Allies (AWA), a group that tracks and aids SIVs, worked with researchers at American University to determine that the number eligible for evacuation could be as high as 250,000. The data was first highlighted by the New York Times.
The 250,000 number includes thousands of Afghans who contracted with U.S. companies and could be eligible for refugee status, plus SIVs. It also includes a new group of Afghan interpreters and others now qualified for SIVs after Congress passed a bill in July that broadened eligibility.
“That may have doubled the eligible applicant pool,” said Zeller, who serves on the board of AWA and worked with dozens of others to collect the data.
The U.S. is working to develop “detailed plans” to keep evacuating people after troops leave, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday, including SIVs, Americans and other vulnerable Afghans.
But those plans rely on cooperation from the Taliban, Blinken said, in order to keep the airport functional.
“The expectation of the international community is that people who want to leave Afghanistan after the U.S. military parts should be able to do so,” the secretary of state said.
Blinken said the department was looking at a “variety” of diplomatic options to stay engaged in the region so evacuations can continue.
State Department spokesperson Price elaborated Friday, noting that experts had reviewed the potential functionality of Kabul’s airport after August.
“Teams of U.S. and allied experts have assessed Karzai International Airport for capabilities that would support the resumption of commercial operations once we depart,” he said, without giving details of the assessment.
President Biden pledged to SIVs on Thursday that they would be evacuated after the U.S. departure.
“We’re going to continue to try to get you out. It matters,” he said, speaking to Afghan allies, though he noted that it depends on the Taliban’s own self-interest in keeping the airport running.
It’s uncertain that the Taliban will live up to that commitment come September, especially since they’re known to directly threaten — and sometimes kill — Afghans who worked for the U.S.
“There’s going to be a reckoning for this,” Zeller said. “We’ve seen what trusting the Taliban gets us.”
White House press secretary Psaki acknowledged Friday that evacuations would begin to decline this weekend as the U.S. military prepared to leave.
Approximately 4,200 people were evacuated Friday, the White House said, compared to 7,500 during the same period on Thursday.