Report

U.S. Officials Make Last-Minute Push to Get Afghan Spies Out Before Withdrawal

Intelligence assets who worked for the CIA now face deadly reprisals.

By , a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter focusing on national security, federal law enforcement, and politics.
Afghan security forces escort suspected Taliban fighters
Afghan security forces escort suspected Taliban fighters at the National Directorate of Security headquarters in Herat, Afghanistan, on Feb 2. HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

As the date of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches, Biden administration officials and top lawmakers are urgently working on resettling a particularly vulnerable group of Afghans, according to officials in Washington: people who worked as the CIA’s local spies during the two-decade war there.

The agency relied on Afghan informants to secretly gather intelligence on the Taliban and al Qaeda, and it pledged to protect them in return. But now many of those spies, whose work for the United States in some cases became publicly known in Afghanistan, face the possibility of deadly reprisal.

Afghans who worked alongside Americans, including translators and interpreters, are eligible for a special visa that allows them to seek refuge in the United States. But the application requires them to provide evidence of the relationship. Because of the clandestine nature of their work, Afghans who spied on behalf of the United States often lack the required documentation. Even interpreters able to prove they worked for the military have faced yearslong processing delays.

As the date of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches, Biden administration officials and top lawmakers are urgently working on resettling a particularly vulnerable group of Afghans, according to officials in Washington: people who worked as the CIA’s local spies during the two-decade war there.

The agency relied on Afghan informants to secretly gather intelligence on the Taliban and al Qaeda, and it pledged to protect them in return. But now many of those spies, whose work for the United States in some cases became publicly known in Afghanistan, face the possibility of deadly reprisal.

Afghans who worked alongside Americans, including translators and interpreters, are eligible for a special visa that allows them to seek refuge in the United States. But the application requires them to provide evidence of the relationship. Because of the clandestine nature of their work, Afghans who spied on behalf of the United States often lack the required documentation. Even interpreters able to prove they worked for the military have faced yearslong processing delays.

The Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee raised the issue with President Joe Biden earlier this month, saying in a letter that the United States must not turn its back on these Afghans. To do so would “send a damaging message to our allies and potential partners about the United States’ reliability and trustworthiness,” Sens. Mark Warner and Marco Rubio wrote.

“It would also be a stain on our national conscience,” they added

The senators did not specify which intelligence agencies their public letter referred to, but a committee source confirmed to Foreign Policy that the request was related to Afghans who served as CIA assets and that the senators have been working with the administration behind the scenes for weeks to find a solution.

The source, who did not want to be identified while discussing sensitive security matters, said the committee had “engaged intelligence officials at the very highest levels to discuss the administration’s plans for protecting those who served alongside our intelligence officers in Afghanistan.”

A U.S. official confirmed that the CIA has been heavily involved in the push to protect its Afghan allies, making it a “huge priority” as the Taliban gained control of large swaths of the country in recent months.

The official, who also requested anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said the agency has been using its unique access to foreign intelligence for years to help the U.S. government verify the identities of Afghans applying for the special immigrant visa, and it is currently helping its local assets with the process.

The White House National Security Council said it has been involved in the effort as well. “We’re aware of this issue and taking appropriate steps in accordance with the law to ensure that applications by Afghans who are eligible for SIVs [Special Immigrant Visas] are being completely and fully evaluated,” a spokesperson said in response to questions. 

The administration has recently faced pressure on the matter from the House of Representatives as well. On July 22, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill to authorize more visas for vulnerable Afghan allies and speed up the approval process. The legislation heads to the Senate next.

Biden has said he wants the U.S. withdrawal to be complete by Sept. 11, marking 20 years since the 2001 terrorist attacks that prompted the United States to invade Afghanistan. On July 21, top U.S. Gen. Mark Milley said the Taliban now control about half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centers, up from 81 last month. 

The administration announced last week that it would be bringing around 2,500 Afghans who had mostly completed the lengthy visa vetting process to Fort Lee, an Army base in Virginia, in the days ahead. But it’s unclear how many of those Afghans—if any—worked with the CIA. It’s also unclear how many total Afghans worked with the agency during the war. 

CIA Director William Burns said in an interview with NPR last week that the agency would “retain [its] capability” to collect intelligence and counter any efforts by al Qaeda to regain power.

Warner and Rubio, in their letter to the president, warned that the “the pace of withdrawal and the rapid deterioration in security” in Afghanistan “does not align” with the visa processing timeline, noting that there are “thousands in the pipeline.” 

“Given the increasingly precarious security situation in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s direct targeting of Afghan partners to the United States, we ask that you pursue a set of options to keep these Afghans safe, including approving Special Immigrant Visas, evacuations to a third country, and/or priority admission under the U.S. Refugee Admissions program,” the senators wrote.

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who for years pushed for more visas for Afghans who helped the United States during the war, told Foreign Policy that intelligence agencies must also proactively work with other parts of the administration in getting the visas approved. 

“The intelligence community’s cooperation in processing SIVs not only helps ensure our allies’ safety—it also safeguards our national security down the line. 

 “Our local partners around the world must know they can count on the United States to uphold its promise when they support a U.S. mission in any capacity,” Shaheen said.

Emma Loop is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter focusing on national security, federal law enforcement, and politics. She has worked at BuzzFeed News, the Ottawa Citizen, and the Windsor Star, and has appeared in Insider, Vice Canada and on CBC News. Twitter: @LoopEmma

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