I could hear the deafening bursts of gunfire being fired in the air by the Taliban as they celebrated the last U.S. flight out of Kabul.
I was on WhatsApp with Yusif (I’m using only first names to protect sources), one of many thousands of Afghan translators for the U.S. military whom the U.S. has abandoned to the Taliban, despite President Biden’s pledge to rescue them before leaving.
As he huddled on the floor with his wife in an apartment near the airport, Yusif was terrified a gun battle might engulf them. In a surreal moment, as the news popped up on my screen, I informed him from Philly that the guns were celebrating America’s defeat.
This was a moment of deep shame for our country’s honor and moral standing. The abandonment of Afghan translators (along with 200 or so U.S. citizens) symbolizes the botched exit from Kabul. After former President Trump’s surrender pact with the Taliban, Joe Biden was supposed to do better.
“They are the ones that have bull’s-eyes on their back,” Rep. Mike McCaul (R., Texas) told CNN, referring to translators.
The White House must use every economic lever to compel the Taliban to let these Afghan allies go.
There should have been a serious effort to get them out sooner. They are entitled by Congress to special immigrant visas, known as SIVs. Veterans groups and bipartisan groups in Congress pressed for months to speed up the excruciatingly slow SIV process; 300 Afghan translators have been assassinated since 2014.
Yet the State Department’s halting effort to expedite the process wasn’t remotely sufficient to work through around 20,000 SIV applicants, along with an estimated 55,000 family members, before the exit.
The Biden team refused to mount an airlift while U.S. forces still controlled the Bagram air base. President Biden says this would have caused panic, but it could have been done in stages. Biden still hasn’t explained why the White House mistakenly believed no Taliban takeover was plausible for months, despite warnings. This error guaranteed a chaotic exit.
With no State Department plan for emergency evacuation, thousands of the most endangered Afghan allies were abandoned to Taliban revenge.
These are folks like Yusif, who worked with the U.S. military on a critical U.S. Army project to ensure U.S. military supplies reached Afghan forces, and his wife, a lawyer and social activist who also worked with the U.S. military. With four children, they are now hiding in their in-laws’ cramped apartment, along with his mother and father, who used to be chief prosecutor in Kabul and put many Taliban in jail.
“We are stuck in the middle of nowhere,” Yusif told me. “All of us worked for the U.S. government.”
When the evacuation began, he rushed to the airport with his family. They were caught in a crossfire that nicked his hand and hit near his sister-in-law’s spine. “I saw bodies fall in front of us. Even now it makes me cry.”
Back in hiding, his only hope is that he or his wife can get a SIV. “I worked 60 hours a week for the U.S. government, on the most sensitive projects,” he said. “But the people we expected to help us, they left us on the ground, alone.”
SIV applicants are also people like Shafiq, a surgeon who worked as a medical interpreter when U.S. forces set up a field hospital in the early 2000s. Local Taliban are already making threatening phone calls. “Every family is trying to sell their household goods on the streets to get money to leave,” he told me on WhatsApp. “People feel helpless. I was shocked that the Americans would leave like this.”
He is waiting desperately for his SIV: “I’m afraid. We are in dire need.”
What further embittered many translators was the lack of a coherent plan to expedite their access to the airport. No one seems to know how many SIV applicants made it onto planes.
There are unconfirmed reports that many of the 122,000 or so Afghans who got on flights weren’t on priority lists, because the process was so chaotic. The green card holder I wrote about Wednesday waited 20 hours on a USAID-organized bus outside an airport Saturday, but the bus was turned back.
It is imperative that the United States press the Taliban to let all Afghans leave who wish to. President Biden has cited the Taliban’s pledge to do so, but he must ensure it is kept.
That is not only a moral obligation. It impacts the level of trust that allies will have for the United States.
Retired Maj. Gen. Jon Miller, who worked with Shafiq years ago, made the point to me clearly. “We make promises and we must keep them. Our allies must believe we will be faithful. I fear recent actions put our trustworthiness at risk.
“At what point is your word not your word? When is it OK to say, ‘Sorry … just kidding.’ To people who have put their lives at risk, this is not a trivial promise, and it shouldn’t be to us.”