The United States is preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan by September 20 years after invading the country in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Meanwhile, the Taliban is laying siege in more areas of the country.
Local Afghans who assisted the U.S. troops, like Abdul Majid Habibi, are pleading for the U.S. to evacuate their families.
Abdul served in the Afghan army for more than 35 years when he pivoted and started working with the U.S armed forces.
“I was a cultural advisor and translator, interpreter and translated very, very complicated letters,” Abdul said.
After working with U.S. troops for about 16 years, Abdul came here with his son, Walid Omid, under a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). The program provides a green card to Afghans who worked with U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan.
“These visas go out to those whose lives are at risk because of their service to the U.S.,” said Ellen Smith, executive director at Keeping Our Promise, a program that resettles wartime allies. She says their organization is aware of 125 local cases similar to the Habibi’s.
“There is no doubt that they are at risk because the Taliban, before, has called them infidels and that they should die.”
The SIV process is long and complicated. For the Habibis, it took 14 years for their visas to be processed, Walid said. In that time, he married and had three children, two daughters and one son. They live in the capital, Kabul.
The Habibi’s have to keep changing their family’s address for security reasons, said Walid, and the U.S. military is no help.
“You have to be prepared for this kind of danger and challenges. So, no, we do not receive any support in this regard,” he said.
Abdul and his son’s involvement with the U.S. Army puts their family at higher risk of deadly violence as the Taliban gains ground, but Walid’s wife and children don’t qualify for the visa.
”If the Taliban take control of Kabul city, my family’s life is absolutely in danger,” Walid said.
Walid’s mother, who is eligible for a visa, is one of about 19,000 cases that are backlogged.
“She’s just waiting for her medical check-up so it is also taking too long, so we are just hopeful to bring her here as soon as possible,” Walid said.
Rep. Joe Morelle co-sponsored a bill that would remove some of the barriers for SIV applicants, including medical examinations before arrival in the U.S. which can cost thousands of dollars, and is only conducted at one facility in Kabul.
“If we leave these people behind, whatever future engagements we have in the world, it’s going to be even harder to encourage local citizens to help in our efforts if they become aware that the United States government just abandoned them in Afghanistan,” Morelle said.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said on Friday that she is actively working with her colleagues to support and expand the Special Immigrant Visa program. In May, Gillibrand co-signed a letter to President Joe Bien along with 19 other senators to that effect.
The letter includes a request to "review and consider options to evacuate to a safer location SIV applicants with pending applications who may face extreme danger in Afghanistan..."
A few weeks ago, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Mark Milley said the military was drafting plans to evacuate Afghan interpreters and others who have aided the U.S. armed forces.
On Friday, a Pentagon spokesperson told WXXI that there are currently no requests or directives to do that.
A State Department spokesperson said on Friday that they are processing qualified SIV applications as quickly as possible.
However, the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan suspended all visa operations on Sunday due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the country.
So Abdul and Walid are hoping for one more option — that their loved ones are granted humanitarian parole and asylum so that they can evacuate as soon as possible.