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Many Afghans Urgently Need Visas, But The U.S. Special Visa Program Has Fallen Behind

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Biden administration is ahead of schedule to have all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of next month. On the heels of that withdrawal, the Taliban are violently retaking parts of the country. More women and children have been killed this year than at any time in the past decade, according to the United Nations, which is complicating a promise made by the U.S. to give all Afghans who worked with the U.S. military a chance to emigrate and resettle in America. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The special immigrant visa program has been running far behind schedule for years. During that time, the program has been slow walked and hobbled by red tape. And the danger to these interpreters has only grown over the years as the Taliban got stronger. But every one of the interpreters I've ever interviewed has remained pro-American.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FIDA: I am proud to have worked with such wonderful people. And they, you know, stand by me.

LAWRENCE: This is an interpreter named Fida speaking to me via Skype in 2018. Fida worked with U.S. Special Forces. He asked we only use his first name for his security. He said he'd been getting death threats since he first started helping the Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FIDA: I had a call from the Taliban and saying, hey, you know, they would kill me for that.

LAWRENCE: Fida had been waiting since 2011 for his visa to the U.S. A clerical error kept derailing his case. Still, he wouldn't criticize the U.S. himself, but he said many Afghans were starting to.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FIDA: In the future, people will think, you know - say that, no, they broke the promises to a lot of interpreters who were shoulder to shoulder with them and who saved American lives.

LAWRENCE: Finally, Fida got approved. A lawyer with the International Refugee Assistance Project helped him get a visa last December, but he never got a chance to use it. Fida was murdered earlier this year. Julie Kornfeld was his lawyer.

JULIE KORNFELD: Before going to work, he was going to drop off his son at school. And the son heard the Taliban as they murdered his father, saying, you are an infidel. You've worked with U.S. forces.

LAWRENCE: In recent weeks, the U.S. expedited the visa process after a push from groups like Kornfeld's, as well as veterans' groups and veterans in Congress. Finally, this week, the U.S. State Department will fly approximately 750 out of Kabul Airport. But there are as many as 70,000 interpreters and their family members waiting, and nearly half of them are stuck outside of Kabul. The U.S. government has offered no help to get them to the Afghan capital through Taliban-held territory. With almost all U.S. troops gone, it's not clear the U.S. can help them, says Afghanistan veteran Matt Zeller.

MATT ZELLER: Why didn't we take these people when we still had the personnel and equipment in place to do so? Why did we leave this to the 11th hour when it was going to be the most difficult, when the only people whose safety we could actually guarantee are the ones closest to the airport in Kabul?

LAWRENCE: The U.S. State Department has been rushing to set up a new system to get the Afghans out. A State Department official said, America has a sacred duty to fulfill our commitment to these people. But Zeller doesn't see how they can. He works with the Association of Wartime Allies, a coalition pushing to evacuate all the interpreters. Zeller even hosts a podcast where he interviews some of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WARTIME ALLIES")

ZELLER: Well, we're honored for your service. How many years did you serve?

WARDAK: I served, like, almost seven years with them.

LAWRENCE: He disguises their voices, like this man who goes by the name Wardak. Wardak says the Taliban know where he lives and have branded him an American spy.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WARTIME ALLIES")

WARDAK: So that's why I separate right now from my home. And then I left my kids at home.

LAWRENCE: He's been on the run, sleeping at police stations when he could afford to bribe them. Zeller doesn't know how Wardak will make it to Kabul.

ZELLER: Every one of them I ask, you know, do you have options? Can you get out if we don't save you? And they just - you know, they all say, are you kidding me? We're going to die.

LAWRENCE: Zeller says it haunts him. And he says after this, he doesn't know what future ally will take American soldiers at their word.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.