Report

Those Left Behind in Afghanistan

A month after the U.S. withdrawal, Afghans who worked for the U.S. war effort are in hiding. Few see a way out.

Members of the U.S. Marines speak to an Afghan man.
Members of the U.S. Marines speak to an Afghan man through an interpreter after seeing suspicious activity near their base in Mian Poshteh, Afghanistan, on July 14, 2009. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

The text message came in just after 2:30 a.m. “[T]here is a major search operation going on in Kabul tonight. … If possible try to stay out of sight, and away from central areas.” The message instructed its recipients to hide their documents and computers and listed the districts of Kabul the Taliban were targeting that night for house-to-house searches.

For Ahmed (whose real name is being withheld for security reasons) and other Afghans who worked for the government, messages like these are a way to stay hidden, stay ahead of the Taliban, and most importantly, stay alive. The text groups, sent over encrypted messaging apps like Signal, have cropped up among Afghans and U.S. veterans remotely trying to help their former comrades evade massive sweeps by the Taliban and other militant groups searching for those who aided the failed U.S. war effort for two decades.

Ahmed worked on and off for the U.S military and State Department for years, putting his life on the line and, at one point, surviving an attack from an improvised explosive device. Like thousands of other Afghans who helped the U.S. war effort, he could not escape the country during the chaotic U.S. evacuation. Now, he and other former U.S. partners find themselves in a deadly game of wits: hopping between safe houses day by day as the Taliban, Islamic State, and other extremist groups hunt down former U.S. allies to jail them or, more often, beat or kill them.

The text message came in just after 2:30 a.m. “[T]here is a major search operation going on in Kabul tonight. … If possible try to stay out of sight, and away from central areas.” The message instructed its recipients to hide their documents and computers and listed the districts of Kabul the Taliban were targeting that night for house-to-house searches.

For Ahmed (whose real name is being withheld for security reasons) and other Afghans who worked for the government, messages like these are a way to stay hidden, stay ahead of the Taliban, and most importantly, stay alive. The text groups, sent over encrypted messaging apps like Signal, have cropped up among Afghans and U.S. veterans remotely trying to help their former comrades evade massive sweeps by the Taliban and other militant groups searching for those who aided the failed U.S. war effort for two decades.

Ahmed worked on and off for the U.S military and State Department for years, putting his life on the line and, at one point, surviving an attack from an improvised explosive device. Like thousands of other Afghans who helped the U.S. war effort, he could not escape the country during the chaotic U.S. evacuation. Now, he and other former U.S. partners find themselves in a deadly game of wits: hopping between safe houses day by day as the Taliban, Islamic State, and other extremist groups hunt down former U.S. allies to jail them or, more often, beat or kill them.

Several other Afghans who worked for the U.S. government and are now in hiding said in phone interviews they fear Washington’s interest in helping them evacuate is fading over time. They have yet to be contacted by the State Department on any evacuation plans, and they believe that despite statements to the contrary coming from Washington, they are being left to fend for themselves.

“Even if you put aside the Taliban, ISIS is very dangerous for us,” said another former contractor for the U.S. State Department and military, who is also in hiding and spoke on condition of anonymity. “They announced that if they find anyone who worked for the United States in any way, if they find them, they will kill them. Every day I hear of three or four other former workers for the U.S. military or government [who were] kidnapped by unknown gunmen and are not seen again.”

All those still in the country said their chances of evading capture are decreasing by the day.

“I cannot stay in one location very long, but I also cannot know how long I can keep us like this,” Ahmed said. “Eventually, I feel I will be found.”


An air crew assigned to the assists evacuees aboard a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of the Afghanistan evacuation at the Kabul airport on Aug. 21 in a U.S. Air Force handout photo.

An air crew assigned to assist evacuees sits aboard a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of the Afghanistan evacuation at Kabul’s airport on Aug. 21. Taylor Crul/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images

In the weeks surrounding the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, seemingly everyone in Washington directed their focus to the evacuation efforts.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken scrapped a long-planned trip to Africa—his first as U.S. President Joe Biden’s top diplomat—to focus on evacuation efforts. State Department officers said embassies and consulates in India, Mexico, and elsewhere took shifts around the clock to process evacuees from afar. And virtually every member of Congress was speaking out and lighting up the administration’s phone lines for updates on rescuing U.S. citizens and Afghan allies.

Senior State Department officials insist the department is working around the clock to help people evacuate Afghanistan, but their focus appears to be centered on the small number of remaining U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents in the country, not on Afghans who supported the U.S. war effort and became eligible for “special immigrant visas” (SIVs).

Now, people with SIVs are pinning their hopes on outside organizations, including some made up of U.S. veteran groups and former U.S. special forces, to secure charter flights out of the country, sometimes with little to no assistance from the State Department. Some groups—including Digital Dunkirk, Pineapple Express, and Project Dynamo—have had limited success in helping Afghans and their families evacuate. Others are trying to help trapped Afghans find safe houses or sending group chat alerts about Taliban raids in various districts of Kabul.

This story draws on interviews with more than a dozen sources and experts, including Afghans still in hiding. Many—but not all—say they are losing hope Washington can rescue them.

The U.S. government won’t—or, more likely, can’t—yet say precisely how many SIV applicants are among the roughly 124,000 people it successfully evacuated in the chaotic last weeks of the war as processing is still ongoing. It’s thought that tens if not hundreds of thousands of Afghans and their extended families who may be eligible for such visas have been left behind.

This story draws on interviews with more than a dozen sources and experts, including Afghans still in hiding, Biden administration officials, career diplomats, and congressional aides. The Afghans spoke on condition of anonymity. They shared documents verifying their employment history with U.S. government agencies and contractors, and their work history was verified by former U.S. service members and contractors who worked with them.

Many—but not all—say they are losing hope Washington can rescue them.

In Washington, the mood on how to help trapped Afghans varies widely. Some are filled with a profound sense of guilt and grief, others face seething frustration at seemingly endless bureaucratic hurdles, and still others hold out hope they can still rescue SIV applicants.

“I’m a United States senator, and I continue to have difficulty ascertaining who is in charge,” fumed Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal at a Senate hearing on Afghanistan on Tuesday. The matter has pushed relations between the Biden administration and Congress—already tense—to new low points.

Senior Biden administration officials arranged a closed-door briefing with lawmakers on Sept. 22 to update them on evacuation efforts. The meeting seemed only to exacerbate the bad blood. Some Republican lawmakers angrily stormed out of the meeting, according to several congressional aides familiar with the matter, saying officials from the Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security didn’t answer basic questions on the situation.

“Its still a mess,” said one senior aide for the House Foreign Affairs Committee who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We have asked repeatedly for an actual accounting of who is still there, even just how many [U.S. citizens] in the country are you still working with, and we still cannot get anything.”

A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the briefing, saying the department as a general matter does not comment on classified briefings.

“We have asked repeatedly for an actual accounting of who is still there, even just how many [U.S. citizens] in the country are you still working with, and we still cannot get anything.”

“We are committed to working with Congress and our interagency partners on ways to further streamline the SIV program beyond that which we have achieved over the last nine months,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson insisted the department would honor its commitments to Afghans who assisted the U.S. government. “We continue to make good on our pledge to U.S. citizens, [legal permanent residents], and Afghans to whom we have a special commitment. We will be relentless in helping them depart Afghanistan, if and when they choose to do so,” the spokesperson added.

Matt Zeller, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who co-founded No One Left Behind, a nonprofit that helps Afghans who assisted the U.S. military, voiced frustration at the lack of a clear plan from the U.S. government to help SIV applicants evacuate. He’d been sounding the alarm bell on the SIV backlog for years.

Zeller said he has hope for the Afghans left behind, but in the near term, they need to erase every connection they had to the United States. “My message for them now is: One, they need to take all their documents and links to us, take digital photos of those, they need to upload them into the cloud, and then they need to burn everything,” he said. “Because they can’t have any physical connection to us. Anyone who does will face retribution.”

“The next thing they need to do is go into hiding,” he added. “They need to make it seem as if our lives together never occurred, and they need to be patient. Because right now, the reality is right now we don’t have good means of getting them out.”

Still, evacuation efforts haven’t completely halted. One charter flight arranged by nonprofit group Project Dynamo left Afghanistan in recent days to the United Arab Emirates with more than 100 U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents onboard. The flight gave other outside groups a glimmer of hope that evacuation efforts could continue.

Daniel Elkins, executive director of the Special Operations Association of America, which is helping SIVs, said the U.S. government and private groups can’t give up—and the current crisis presents an opportunity for the two to band together.

“I see a lot of people being pessimistic,” he said. “But man, we need to keep our faith. These people are counting on us; we can’t throw in the towel.”


Executive director of the International Trade Centre Arancha Gonzalez talks with John Bass, then U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, during a U.N. debate on performance of his country's private sector at the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan on Nov. 27, 2018.

Then-executive director of the International Trade Centre, Arancha González Laya, talks with John Bass, then-U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, during a United Nations debate on his countrys private sector at the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan in Geneva on Nov. 27, 2018. DENIS BALIBOUSE/AFP via Getty Images

At the State Department, John Bass, a seasoned career diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, is leading the task force to coordinate evacuation efforts and secure the safe passage of roughly 100 U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents still stuck in the country.

Evacuating Afghans remains a lower priority for the Biden administration than extricating U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, according to multiple people familiar with the effort, leaving thousands of former interpreters and others who helped the two-decade-long U.S. effort far back in the queue.

“The initial priority is on supporting departures of American citizens and lawful permanent residents and their immediate families,” the same State Department spokesperson said. “As space becomes available, we will facilitate departures for other priority groups, which includes SIV holders, and other Afghans at risk to whom we hold special commitments.”

The spokesperson added the department would not disclose details of its evacuation efforts for security reasons.

When asked about specific numbers, the spokesperson referred Foreign Policy to a congressional hearing on Sept. 13. During the hearing, Blinken said around 20,000 people are in the SIV pipeline, a backlog in a system rive with dysfunction. Three weeks after the hearing, the department did not provide any updates on those numbers.

And in Afghanistan, the situation is getting more complicated as the country nears a cold season that will make it more difficult for flights to leave the mountainous country and could make overland routes more treacherous, spike the price of fuel, and raise the cost of keeping vulnerable Afghans in safe houses. Although the Taliban cooperated to allow a Project Dynamo’s private flight out of Afghanistan over the weekend, people involved with evacuation efforts don’t think the fragile truce with the newly empowered militant group will last.

“The longer the Taliban is in power, the more comfortable they are in using their power,” said Evanna Hu, who organized the so-called Afghanistan Evacuation Coordination Team of ex-U.S. officials, aid workers, and volunteers. “They are letting the ‘troublemakers’ leave and then might crack down.”

“The longer the Taliban is in power, the more comfortable they are in using their power.”

But those who are getting out on private charter flights are among the lucky ones. Afghanistan remains closed to commercial air traffic, and many Afghans lack the documents needed to travel. The Taliban said they have stopped issuing passports until further notice, leaving most special immigrant visa applicants unable to get out. And even those who are able to get out are subject to scrutiny and red tape. One former senior Afghan diplomat said evacuees headed to the United Arab Emirates without documents have waited weeks to be processed.

“They are in a shambles,” the former diplomat said of Afghanistan’s embassies abroad, which would have processed that paperwork had its government not collapsed. “Some are operating as independent entities.”

“All are saying they can’t operate under, or report to, the new savages in Kabul,” the former diplomat added.

The Biden administration still lacks basic information about some of the people left behind and remains at the mercy of U.S. citizens and green card holders to provide information about their own whereabouts, said Alex Plitsas, an Army combat veteran working on the evacuation effort. But lack of data has left religious and human rights groups trying to get their colleagues out of Taliban country frustrated.

“We’re definitely not getting clear answers on anything,” said Rabbi Will Berkovitz, who runs the Seattle-based Jewish Family Service, which has been working to get dozens of SIV and green card holders out of Afghanistan.

“This is why there needs to be a point person with authority to give clear communication, direction, create a plan, and operationalize it. All we hear is, ‘we are working on it,’” he added.

A Taliban fighter stands guard on the tarmac at the airport in Kabul on Sept. 12.

A Taliban fighter stands guard on the tarmac at the airport in Kabul on Sept. 12. KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images

Among those stranded are dozens of journalists working for U.S. government-funded media outlets, namely Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), who are eligible for U.S. visas. Many of the journalists continue to work despite the Taliban’s increasing attacks on the media, which have forced more than 150 news outlets to close.

As journalists funded by the U.S. government, they face double jeopardy. At least four journalists working for the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, have been killed in Afghanistan in the past three years, including Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, who was assassinated in a targeted bombing attack in November 2020.

“Many vulnerable Afghan journalists remain in the country, some without the travel documents necessary for international travel,” said Jamie Fly, president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “It is essential that the United States and other governments do more to facilitate their immediate departure from Afghanistan and processing for entry into countries that can host them. Time is of the essence.”

An estimated 500 RFE/RL employees and their families, as well as those of Voice of America, were left behind during the evacuations.

Also among those stranded are the families of U.S. service members who are Afghan citizens and eligible for SIVs. Foreign Policy spoke to one U.S. service member, a former Afghan interpreter who secured a visa to the United States and then joined the U.S. Army to go back and serve in Afghanistan under the American flag.

“With all the efforts and attempts that I made, nobody has gotten out. They are moving around under harsh conditions, trying to stay safe,” said one U.S. service member whose family is still in Afghanistan.

He said his immediate family is in imminent danger and moving from house to house to avoid being taken by the Taliban or other militant groups. He worked for months to navigate the U.S. visa system to get his family out, even enlisting the help of former top U.S. military commanders he worked with. But he has hit wall after bureaucratic wall, even as a currently serving member of the U.S. military.

“With all the efforts and attempts that I made, nobody has gotten out. They are moving around under harsh conditions, trying to stay safe,” he said. Foreign Policy is withholding his name and the name and details of his family for security reasons.

Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter on Sept. 10 to Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin requesting details of how many U.S. service members have family members trapped in Afghanistan.

McCaul, representing Texas’s 10th district, wrote that the families of several Texans who serve in the military are still trapped in Afghanistan. “They have been working night and day to safely evacuate their family members. But their efforts so far have not been successful,” he wrote. “[W]hen they need us the most, the federal government has turned our backs on them. If we abandon the family members of our service men and women in Afghanistan, they will certainly be slaughtered by the Taliban.”

Nearly three weeks later, neither the Pentagon nor the State Department have responded to McCaul’s letter.

The U.S. service member who spoke to Foreign Policy said his family is running out of safe houses. Secure in the United States, he sometimes stays up until 2 a.m., either trying to find more U.S. government agencies to call about his family’s case or keeping in contact with his family to ensure they are safe.

“I do not know what to tell my family because they spend a lot of nights waiting for any news or help,” he said. “And then nothing happens.”

Foreign Policy intern Zinya Salfiti contributed reporting for this article.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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