On Monday, Wali tried twice to perform “recon” work to find a potential route to get into Kabul’s airport. He didn’t bring anything with him, just set out with two packs of cigarettes and an energy drink. “I was feeling miserable,” said Wali, a father of two whose name has been changed to protect his identity.
An Afghan green card holder who has spent time in Virginia working with the U.S. armed forces, Wali wanted to figure out how he could leave Afghanistan now that the Taliban have seized control of Kabul, the capital. His plan was to get to the airport, figure out a way in, and then call his brother, also a green card holder, who is sheltering with his children. Once he figured out a way in, he would tell his brother the path.
Like many Afghans with the proper documentation that would allow them to reach safety, however, Wali was unable to get into the airport because the Taliban control the perimeter, up to Massoud Circle, about 2.5 miles outside the international airport.
“They are scaring people, they are shooting in the air,” he told The Intercept. “There is no mechanism for eligible people to get inside the airport to leave.”
The United Nations estimates that 330,000 Afghans have tried to flee their homes since the beginning of the year, with at least half leaving in May when the U.S. began its military withdrawal. The Afghan government, which had been propped up with international efforts, collapsed on Sunday when the Taliban swept Kabul, establishing themselves in the presidential palace. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani left the country the same day. The U.S. Defense Department announced Monday that about 3,000 U.S. troops would be deployed to the airport in Kabul to aid in the removal of U.S. Embassy staff as well as Afghans who assisted the U.S. government in its war effort.
However, as the last few days have shown, American involvement does not guarantee stability. As chaos engulfs Afghanistan, many in the U.S. who worked in the country are scrambling to help the contacts and colleagues who worked as U.S. partners and are now at the mercy of the Taliban. While a visa program exists, the melee has made it impossible for eligible green card holders to reach safety.
“The U.S. and NATO control the airfield itself, but it’s so chaotic and violent at the perimeter that people can’t get inside, even people with green cards and visas,” said Joe Saboe, a military veteran. Saboe is one of many Americans who worked for the U.S. government in the Middle East and is now trying to assist U.S. citizens and legal U.S. residents with evacuations. “We want to help save their lives. We see it as our patriotic duty.”
There are “so many” Taliban outside the airport, Wali emphasized.
The U.S., under the Special Immigrant Visa program, or SIV, has authorized visas for Afghans who were employed by the U.S. government, many working as translators and fixers on behalf of U.S. forces. Launched for Afghan workers and their dependents in 2009, the program has been plagued by backlogs and disorganization.
The Biden administration promised to speed up the special visa processing for vulnerable Afghans, saying it would start evacuating them to Virginia in late July, but those plans were curtailed as the Taliban advanced faster than anticipated. Yesterday it was reported that flights for Afghan SIV holders were largely paused, prioritizing the evacuation of Americans from the country.
According to Wali, huge crowds surrounded the airport. Many of those people do not have documentation that would make them eligible for evacuation but were driven to the airport by rumors that the U.S. military will evacuate anyone who makes it there.
In the meantime, people like Wali are caught in the chaos. “There needs to be a mechanism,” he said. “We filled in online forms and submitted them to the U.S. Embassy. They need to clear a route so that people with documentation can get through.” Wali does not see why it cannot be the same model as the one he experienced countless times entering U.S. offices, where his paperwork was processed on arrival.
Even right at the airport gate itself, the situation is a mess. Saboe was on FaceTime with the family of an SIV holder who was pinned in place by live Taliban fire. “They were shooting at all of the civilians outside the gate, right over them as they lay on the ground,” he said. NATO troops were watching from the tower, while U.S. troops were in the airfield. “The family were waving their paperwork in the air and yelling ‘visa,’ and they were ignored.”
While Saboe was on FaceTime, the person on the other end started screaming — those next to them had just been killed by what appeared to him to be Taliban bullets.
Late Monday, President Joe Biden made a speech on the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan, promising to “continue to make sure that we take on the Afghan nationals who work side by side with U.S. forces, including interpreters and translators … and so their families are not exposed to danger as well.” Biden did not address specifics about how the U.S. would help the people actively in danger while he was speaking.
After his first attempt, Wali went back to the house where he is staying, watched the news, and placed calls to friends and family. He no longer stays at his home, for fear that neighbors who know that he worked for the U.S. might report him to the Taliban.
About an hour and a half later, he went back out. This time he made it to the airport circle, outside the entrance to the airport gate. More women were there than back at Mansood, he observed. The Taliban were stalking the circle, not letting anyone through.
“I gave them a little smile, a fake wave,” Wali said. You have to do that, he explained. Others were begging the Taliban to let them through, but they were refused. Wali did not speak to the Taliban; he just left. “Can you imagine if I showed them my green card?” he asked.