American and Afghan allies left behind in Afghanistan have entered a fraught and uncertain period of limbo following the definitive conclusion of U.S. military evacuations out of the country.
Advocates estimate roughly 150,000 vulnerable Afghans remain in the country after a U.S. evacuation effort ended early Tuesday, while those who assisted the U.S. military who may now wish to leave with their families could add another 100,000.
Many who remain have gone into hiding over fear of violent retribution by the Taliban, likely targeted for work alongside American and coalition forces who battled and killed members of the Islamic fundamentalist group over two decades of war.
These groups of people face overwhelming confusion and fear over how to leave the country, from practical matters of appropriate travel documents and questions over when airports will reopen and how they will function to the uncertainty of whether the Taliban will respond to international pressure to ensure safe passage.
“The last few months have been incredibly challenging and disappointing for our clients, whose risk has increased exponentially with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan,” Adam Bates, policy counsel with the International Refugee Assistance Project, told reporters, noting that “the majority of our clients were not able to leave Afghanistan on an evacuation flight.”
Out of more than 500 clients the group was trying to get out of the country, only about 130 were able to make it onto flights. Just a few dozen have made it onto U.S. soil.
“The immense joy that we felt for those few clients of ours who've managed to escape — primarily through sheer luck and their own perseverance and not the action of us — that joy has been overshadowed by the pain and frustration we feel for those hundreds of thousands who remain trapped,” he added.
Rabbi Will Berkovitz, CEO of the refugee resettlement organization Jewish Family Service, said that group has 127 people on the ground in Afghanistan — 23 families that qualify for Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) to the U.S. that were left behind in the evacuations.
“Many of them have all of their visa paperwork in hand and ready,” he said in an interview with The Hill. “Others, frankly, the U.S. Embassy took their passports in order to issue them a visa, and then when Kabul fell, they closed the embassy, and they never were able to get their passports back, so they are in a particularly dire situation.”
The organization is gaming whether people can evacuate over land routes but is distraught over whether access to cash and communication may be cut off at any moment. They have advised the people to stay in hiding over the next few days as the situation unfolds.
“The reality on the ground is, it's exceedingly fluid. What’s true now may be false in 20 minutes. There’s no guarantee,” he said. “They’re all people that served with coalition forces, so they’re both targeted — but also our country promised to evacuate them to safety, and we haven’t upheld our promise, and so to me, the blood is on our hands.”
The Biden administration is stressing that it has built international consensus to pressure the Taliban to ensure safe travel for Americans left behind — whose numbers range between 100 and 200 — and Afghans who want to leave the country.
“More than half the world’s countries have joined us in insisting that the Taliban let people travel outside Afghanistan freely,” Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenFive things to watch as Biden heads to the UN Poll: Biden, Trump statistically tied in favorability Majority of voters disapprove of execution of Afghanistan withdrawal: poll MORE said in a speech Monday.
The administration succeeded in evacuating more than 124,000 people from Afghanistan, but it’s unclear how many Afghans remain who qualify for Special Immigrant Visas to the U.S. or other priority refugee status and how the administration will help them leave the country.
Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerThe Memo: Never Trumpers sink into gloom as Gonzalez bows out Kinzinger says Trump 'winning' because many Republicans 'have remained silent' 'Justice for J6' rally puts GOP in awkward spot MORE (R-Ill.) has asked the State and Defense departments to deliver within a week a breakdown of each vulnerable group the administration evacuated and those remaining in Afghanistan.
A number of groups have joined the chorus of criticism over their partners being left behind during what eventually became chaotic evacuation efforts out of Kabul.
The New York-based Women for Afghan Women was unable to secure evacuation for 500 of its most vulnerable staff. This group qualified for evacuation and refugee status for their association with a U.S. government-funded organization.
“Not a single person was evacuated,” Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of the group, wrote in an email to The Hill.
“We are incredibly demoralized and feel let down by America. How could the highest risk of the largest women’s organization — one funded by the U.S. State Department — not have been one of the most urgent groups to get out? Women just weren’t a priority,” she added.
Also left in Afghanistan are an estimated 150 journalists working for the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty media outlets funded by the American government. That group numbers 500 people including their families, according to a congressional aide.
“We are incredibly disappointed that our efforts over the past few weeks to get our colleagues safe passage out of Afghanistan have been unsuccessful,” acting VOA Director Yolanda López said in a statement.
“We have been working day and night, pursuing every available option, only to hit countless obstacles and roadblocks. These men and women are part of our VOA family and we will not be deterred by these setbacks. We remain committed to continuing to do everything we can to help all of our journalists and their families who wish to leave the country and get them to safety,” she added.
Experts say the pool of those wishing to leave trumps the earlier estimates from the administration.
Research from the Association of Wartime Allies conducted in conjunction with American University last week found a conservative estimate of those who worked in some capacity for the American government or nongovernmental organizations or who served in the Afghan National Army along with their families could number 145,000.
Meanwhile, the report estimated that those who assisted U.S. military efforts for at least three years and who may now wish to leave with their families add another 30,000 to an SIV pipeline already numbering past 80,000.
“This is looking at the total potential pool of people who are desperate to get out of the country to save their own lives — not just those that have already filed applications but those who were caught up in bureaucratic denials,” said Adam Malaty-Uhr, a board member with the association who served nine months in Afghanistan.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. had assessed that Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport can support resuming commercial operations.
But up in the air is how the Taliban will go about assigning responsibility for security and technical operations, possibly with the assistance of Qatar and Turkey.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which had been handling travel documents for SIVs and other Afghans at risk, has moved its operations to Doha, Qatar, but it’s unclear how it will communicate with Afghans on the ground.
“The Doha office will perform as many functions as possible akin to what was done in our now-suspended Embassy Kabul,” Price said in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday.
The overriding question is how the Taliban will behave, with U.S. defense officials describing the group as “pragmatic and very businesslike” in helping facilitate evacuations for American citizens alongside the U.S. military, under threat of intense retaliation. Such promises are not guaranteed for Afghan citizens looking to flee without the presence of the U.S. military for the first time in 20 years.
"The point about this sort of diplomatic structure that they are building is that the next part of it has to be enforcement or negotiations or leverage to make the Taliban actually take any of it seriously and to comply," said Annie Pforzheimer, who served as Deputy Chief of Mission at U.S. Embassy Kabul during the Trump administration.
"Enforcement is super tough. Obviously military enforcement is off the table. And then the leverage goes over to recognition, legitimacy and all the economic tools that are currently in play," she added.