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Afghans Who Helped US Troops Say They're Running Out Of Time As They Await Visas

 June 28, 2021 at 9:28 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 Airstrikes ordered by the white house this weekend against Iran backed militias indicates that the U S is still heavily involved in that area of the world. However, plans remain underway to pull us troops out of Afghanistan. This September, the white house and Congress are vowing to help thousands of Afghans who face retribution for working with the American military during two decades of war, but KPBS, military reporter, Steve Walsh says a special visa program designed to bring them to the U S is badly backlogged Speaker 2: 00:34 Before coming to San Diego. In 2017, Ali Rasuli was a translator working with us Marine special operations, outside Kabul, a risky job that made him a target of the Taliban. Though. He left the job to take a safer one as an accountant with an American contractor in Afghanistan, he still felt threatened. Speaker 3: 00:54 Then two occasions, like two people came to me and say, okay, I know you from somewhere. Yeah. He denied Speaker 2: 00:59 Being an interpreter for American forces, but after he was approached a second time, same Speaker 3: 01:05 Night we moved, I quit my job and I called my employer's outcome. Now we're going to work for this company. They, even that employee didn't know that I used to work for the, uh, us Speaker 2: 01:16 Now that the U S is preparing to withdraw. Ruseli says he feels betrayed. He is Harari one of the minority groups, which is often targeted. He still has family in Afghanistan. Speaker 3: 01:28 So these are like the 300 commandos. Uh, Gafcon commandos. They surrounded the Taliban. So a couple of days ago Speaker 2: 01:36 Now every day he watches videos on YouTube of the Taliban driving unopposed into Afghan cities. Speaker 3: 01:42 It doesn't make any sense to me at all. I mean, absolutely this is wrong. They shouldn't leave the country until we have a rational peace, at least. I mean, there Speaker 2: 01:53 Silly was allowed to come to the us through the special immigration visa program. Visa is set aside for people who worked with the U S government Noah Coburn, a political anthropologist at Bennington college says the U S depends on local contractors in Afghanistan, but has really never had a plan to handle the fallout when their lives are threatened. Speaker 4: 02:13 That's very much a part of, uh, I think the way the U S views these global entanglements, um, trying to keep them temporary, trying to keep them economical, but not thinking through what some of the longer term repercussions of them Speaker 2: 02:26 With the American troops on the verge of pulling out Coburn says there's a real potential for people to be slaughtered, especially members of minority groups who backed the U S the Biden ministration indicates that they will try to evacuate the Afghans to a third party country while they await their us visas. There is a backlog of roughly 18,000 applications, not including families, but the process is so slow that many more people gave Speaker 4: 02:53 Up. If I've got the Taliban threat, that is really imminent. Um, I'm going to be, uh, not applying for this. Uh, and I've interviewed several people who have forgone the application process because it's a waste of time and waste of money for them. Speaker 2: 03:07 The Afghan community in San Diego is tiny compared to other immigrant groups in the city. The area took in tens of thousands of refugees at the end of the Vietnam war. More recently, Iraqis and Syrians, not counting refugees. The entire backlog of special immigration visas is roughly 18,000 Armageddon car car. It was a medical interpreter for the American military in Kabul, before he came to the U S in 2014, he now works with Jewish family services in San Diego, counseling, other immigrants from Afghanistan Speaker 5: 03:41 Before they are coming here, they are thinking like, when I go, everything will be easy for me in America, but the first year it's difficult for them Speaker 2: 03:49 Still it's been worth it. He says back in Afghanistan, working with the Americans was nearly the only option for thousands of Afghans. But for many that option ended when they were threatened by the Taliban Speaker 5: 04:01 In general. This is that the situation is not getting better right now. So the only way is if peace camp in Afghanistan, that that will be a solution at the moment. Speaker 2: 04:11 Almost no Afghans are coming into San Diego. A combination of the visa process being slowed under the last administration. And more recently complications caused by COVID in the U S groups who resettle Afghans in America wait for everything to reboot. Fearing time is running out. This story was Speaker 1: 04:32 Produced by the American Homefront project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans funding comes from the corporation for public broadcasting. Joining me is KPBS military reporter, Steve Walsh, Steve, welcome to the program. Speaker 2: 04:49 Hi Maureen. In Speaker 1: 04:50 What ways, other than translators have Afghans work to help the U S military, Speaker 2: 04:56 What will they do just about everything from building the basis, the cooking to administrative duties, they they're out there driving trucks. At one point, the ratio of, uh, of contractors to us troops was about four contractors to one troop. But, you know, the interpreters are the most vulnerable people like, uh, Ali Rasuli. They were patrolling with Marine special forces that are out there on a daily basis. He kept his face covered, but he could never be sure that he wasn't seen in some unguarded moment now, Speaker 1: 05:30 Yes. Ever tell the people who work for them, that they will be taken care of if they are threatened by groups like the Taliban, or if the U S Lee, Speaker 2: 05:39 I mean, well, this program is known the special immigrant visa program. Um, but, uh, you know, the U S really never had much of an exit strategy here. They thought that America was going to win the war and that they were going to make AF Afghanistan safe for the Afghans. At some point, they did know that people were hiding their identities arriving at basis. Well, before sunrise. So they weren't seen by people in the surrounding villages. You know, I was told the British actually do this very differently. They use third party nationals, just like we do, but they keep, uh, the same group of people essentially bringing them into the British military so they can receive benefits and a medical help for long-term injuries. They also know who's working for them. The U S doesn't really do any of that. Speaker 1: 06:23 As forces are scheduled to be out of Afghanistan by September 11th of this year, of course, that's 20 years after the attacks on America. You mentioned YouTube videos are already showing the Taliban retaking, Afghan cities. Can you tell us more about Speaker 2: 06:38 That? You know, you can go on Al Jazeera or look at Afghan TV. Um, you can even look at social media, you can see the, um, the Taliban going into a smaller cities outside of Kabul. Also the, uh, the Taliban and the Afghan government are both Pash tune, or at least a majority Pash tune. So there's a real fear by some of the other groups like the Harare or those Becks that they'll become the target. Once the, uh, the Americans pull out, does Speaker 1: 07:09 The us believe that the present Afghan government and military are strong enough to stop the advance of the Taliban? Speaker 2: 07:18 That's the official word. So many details of how this work will work are still unannounced. Now, keep in mind yet they're scheduled to pull out on September 11th, but, um, really the Biden administration is really signaling hard that most troops will be out by mid July. So the deadline is really ticking here. So the questions are, uh, you know, can the Afghan government come up with some sort of power sharing arrangement that will allow the government to survive potentially averting civil war will the U S provide money for contractors to maintain us equipment and keep Afghan poor forces supplied? You know, they, they talk about providing air support, but, uh, you know, they really haven't come up with a concrete plan for how to do this. Now, on the other hand, Afghanistan has been at war since the Soviets invaded in, you know, the late 1970s, early eighties. And there is some thought that getting rid of all these outside influences may actually help Afghanistan, though. We're not really seeing that so far, at least with the level of violence and with the amount of Taliban, uh, incursions we've seen in the last several months. Now, when the Speaker 1: 08:23 U S withdrew from Saigon back in 1975, there were scenes of chaos as people who worked for the Americans scrambled onto helicopters in a last minute effort to get out. Is there a chance we'll be seeing something like that in Afghanistan? Speaker 2: 08:40 One of the scenarios is being contemplated is that the Afghan government will survive on its own momentum for six months, maybe to a year until their equipment starts to break down. And they can't be repaired or peace talks to the Taliban were on for months. And then they break that's where the minority groups are worried that that's when they will become the target. So by coming up with a solution, for people who worked most closely with the Americans is SIV program, they're trying to avoid, I think, a fall of Saigon situation, where people are rushing to get, uh, get to the U S embassy while the Taliban are at the outskirts of Kabul. But we know that many more people, there are many more people who work with the Americans than ever applied for the SIV program, which, you know, is slowed to a snail's pace in recent years. So, yeah, we could, we could see a rush if things really, really go south. Speaker 1: 09:31 Now, San Diego was the U S resettlement location for thousands of Vietnamese refugees, and then thousands of Iraqi and Syrian refugees. Should we expect to see that kind of influx of Afghan refugees Speaker 2: 09:43 Actually, immigrant visas are the backlog is about 18,000. Their families are about another 30 or 40,000. So the number of visas is capsule. That's not really a potential to have what happened after Vietnam, unless they changed the rules. So members of Congress have press the administration to do more. So what happens if there is a humanitarian refugee crisis? That's, that's going to be an open question though. The war in Afghanistan just has not attracted the kind of attention that the war in Vietnam did. It didn't, it encaptured the, the American Magination even the way Iraq did over the course of these, these 20 years. It's hard to imagine that we would see a public outcry that would be necessary to let in hundreds of thousands of Afghans into this country, right? At the last moment, when we really haven't been paying attention to this war for the last 20 years. But on the other hand, there were a lot of Afghans who put their lives on the line to help the American military campaign. And we painful to watch. If we see widespread slaughter, once the U S finally pulls out, Speaker 1: 10:41 I've been speaking with KPBS, military reporter, Steve Walsh, Steve. Thanks a lot. Thanks, Maureen.

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The White House and Congress are vowing to help thousands of Afghans who face retribution for working with the American military. Some have come to the U.S. on special visas. But others are in danger of being left behind.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments