Breaking: ‘They Want Them Dead’: One Year after Botched Afghanistan Withdrawal, Thousands of U.S. Allies Remain in Peril

Rabah is still sure the Taliban wants him dead.

Taliban warriors recently stormed his home looking for him — the fourth time this year. They beat his wife and knocked out her teeth, the former interpreter for U.S. Special Forces said.

National Review first highlighted Rabah's case in April. U.S. Embassy staff destroyed his family's passports last summer as they prepared to evacuate the country, leaving Rabah stranded. Rabah paid for new passports, but they were confiscated by the Taliban.

He has since applied for a third set of passports, telling the local passport office staff that he lost them again. But they are skeptical, he said, and if the Taliban finds out, they'll again confiscate his documents.

In the meantime, Rabah remains on the move, surviving on the money he made when he sold his house, and on donations from family and an American handler who is helping him. On Saturday, Rabah paid $2,000 to illegally cross the border with his family into Pakistan, where he believes they will be safer. He said he'd learned the Taliban were planning to kidnap his young daughter. He's scared, he admitted, but he is trying to stay strong.

"I have to never give up," he said. "I have to fight and keep my family safe."

One year ago today, the Biden administration pulled the last U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, ending the nearly 20-year war in the country with a chaotic and disgraceful withdrawal that left 13 American troops dead, terrified Afghans clinging to American planes and falling to their deaths, and tens of thousands of American allies, people like Rabah who dutifully served the U.S., abandoned, their lives in constant danger in the Taliban-controlled country. Some have been able to sneak across borders into neighboring countries or escape with the help of civilian rescue organizations. But a year later, most of those allies remain left behind, while thousands of Afghans who were evacuated in the chaotic final days of the withdrawal had never worked for or with the U.S. They just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The U.S. government's efforts to rescue its remaining allies is happening at a "glacial pace," critics say. Many of the veteran-led volunteer organizations that formed on the fly last summer to evacuate Americans and American allies remain in operation, but donations have dried up, and the most active volunteers are exhausted and struggling with their physical and mental health.

Meanwhile, the Taliban continues to hunt the Afghans who worked closely with American Special Forces. Former members of the now-fallen Afghan military and intelligence community — people who often worked alongside U.S. troops, but typically have no direct path to come to the U.S. — are in the most danger, according to veterans involved in the rescue operations. "Those are guys the Taliban want deader than sh**, because they went out every night, I mean literally every night, killing Haqqani terrorists, breaking up training camps, and the Taliban has a big bone to pick with them," said Ben Owen, chief executive of Flanders Fields, a civilian group that has been part of the volunteer rescue efforts in Afghanistan.

Veterans involved in the rescue told National Review that American allies captured by the Taliban often are killed or are subjected to horrific torture: Some have had their legs smashed with sledgehammers, their genitals burned and beaten, they've been whipped, shocked, stabbed, scalded with burning oil and water, and tossed into pits to die. Targeted women and young girls have been raped, whipped, and denied basic medical care.

And after the U.S. military killed top al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri with a drone strike in the heart of Kabul in late July, it raised the question: If the Taliban is again providing haven for the terrorist group, what was it all for?

Bryan Stern, a U.S. Army and Navy combat veteran, and the leader of the civilian rescue group Project Dynamo, said that if justification for the Afghanistan war was ousting the Taliban because they hosted al-Qaeda with impunity, "and here we are 20 years later and it's still true, it tells me that 20 years later we haven't made a whole lot of progress."

"If anything," he added, "we've probably emboldened them a little bit, because they won, we lost."

'They Want Them Dead'

In the chaos of last summer's withdrawal, the U.S. helped to evacuate about 120,00 people from Afghanistan, the U.S Department of State told National Review in an email. More than 79,000 Afghan nationals ended up traveling to the U.S.

In its email, a State Department spokesman described the evacuation and resettlement effort as "historic" and insisted that the department is "continuing to help people leave Afghanistan and resettle in the United States."

But critics of the evacuation contend that the U.S. didn't do enough last year — before the Taliban steamrolled Kabul — to locate, coordinate with, and rescue endangered allies, Afghans who had worked for the American government or military, and who were either approved or eligible for Special Immigrant Visas. The people who got on American planes were just lucky, critics say. The State Department acknowledges that about half of the Afghans who evacuated on U.S. planes were neither SIV applicants, nor SIV-eligible, nor family members of SIV applicants.

The Association of Wartime Allies, in a report this month, estimated that there were about 81,000 SIV applicants in Afghanistan last August, and at least 78,000 — or 96 percent — remain left behind. Citing Department of State reporting, the organization said an estimated 160,000 SIV-eligible applicants await processing. The State Department, on average, has been awarding about 725 SIVs per month, according to the organization, and "at the current rate, it will take over 18 years to successfully bring our Afghan SIV allies to safety."

Owen, with Flanders Fields, estimated that another 35,000 Afghans who worked with the Afghan military or government, and who are not SIV-eligible, also remain in the country.

"These guys are for the most part getting actively targeted," he said. "They want them dead."

While most Afghans who aren't affiliated with the Taliban may claim that their lives are in danger, Owen said it's become clear that some Afghans — former U.S. Special Forces interpreters, people who worked with the former Afghan government and military — face the highest risk.

"The Taliban has no desire to kill everybody," he said, noting that the Taliban still needs workers and subjects to rule over. "In fact, they don't even have the desire, from what I've seen, to kill everybody that worked for the U.S. government. There are very specific forces that worked for the U.S. government that the Taliban would like to see gone."

In July, the United Nations reported that there have been at least 160 extrajudicial killings of former government or security officials "by members of the de facto authorities" — in other words, the Taliban.

A nationwide economic crisis under the Taliban's rule has left most Afghans — 59 percent — in need of humanitarian assistance, the U.N. reported.

Women's rights have also deteriorated drastically under Taliban rule. Women who previously held positions of power — judges, lawyers, doctors, police officers — are in particular danger. "If they're a female, and they had a position of authority at some point in time, I consider most of them at pretty high risk of rape, capture, and kill," Owen said.

Taliban members at a flag-raising ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 31, 2022.

'It's the Right Thing to Do'

Some of the leaders of the civilian rescue groups said they had no idea they'd still be operating a year after the American withdrawal, but they said there's still work to be done.

Stern formed Project Dynamo last August after he saw videos of Afghans falling to their death from American planes as they left Kabul. The organization is still working on rescue operations in Afghanistan, and earlier this year they expanded to Ukraine.

Project Dynamo's operations in Afghanistan are focused on American citizens and green-card holders, and while the number of those people has dwindled over the past year, Stern said they're still doing small-scale operations almost weekly to get people onto airplanes or across borders in complicated and dangerous land operations. On Monday, they rescued three American permanent residents who had traveled to Afghanistan in the spring of 2021 to visit family and who’d been in hiding for the past year.

"There are absolutely Americans and green-card holders that are there that absolutely do not want to be there at all," Stern said. "And they're not getting any assistance from anybody."

Flanders Fields also is still active in Afghanistan, helping American allies escape. But while the demand for their services continues, the donations the groups relied on in the early days and weeks of the evacuation efforts have for the most part dried up.

"The donor money for Afghanistan is zero at this point," Stern said.

"It's been like pulling teeth for a long time, probably since October," echoed Owen.

Part of the reason is simple donor fatigue. Some donors probably pulled back support because not all of the Afghanistan rescue groups that had been soliciting money turned out to be very good at rescuing people. But another reason, Owen said, is that after Russia invaded Ukraine, donors started looking differently at Afghanistan.

"What the world saw, almost immediately, was that you've got Ukrainian babushkas, 85-year-old grandmas, grabbing AK-47s and defending the homeland. That attracted a shit-ton of money, and rightfully so," Owen said. Donors questioned why they didn't see the same thing in Afghanistan. Owen said the two situations are very different — Ukrainians have a strong national identity and are being invaded by an outside force, while Afghanistan is more tribal, and the Taliban is made up of fellow Afghans – but the impression that donors had that Afghans weren't willing to fight off the bad guys had an impact. "Not a lot of people want to throw money at Afghanistan anymore."

Much of the cost of the continuing rescue operations has fallen to the veteran community supporting the effort and to the volunteers still trying to rescue their former Afghan colleagues. Many have thrown their savings into the effort, pulled money from retirement accounts, taken out second mortgages, and sold extra vehicles.

"When I tell you veterans are going broke, they're going broke," said one American volunteer who asked to be referred to by her codename, Granny.

Representative Stephen Lynch (D., Mass.), has proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to establish a process to reimburse active military members and veterans for personal expenses they made related to the rescue efforts, though how that would work — the vets weren't able to get receipts for many of their expenses — is unclear.

For some of the veterans still involved in the rescue operations, the work has taken over their lives, affecting their physical and mental health. "I do it all continuously, all day, all night," Granny said of the effort — working operations, keeping people safe and hidden, ensuring that evacuees' documents are in order, getting them medical help.

"Your whole life revolves around the people you're trying to keep alive," said Granny, who works with a team of Afghans — many still in Afghanistan and many without a path out — whom she refers to as the "superheroes."

"Every person on my team paints a bigger target on their back with every family we help, with every person we rescue," she said. "And they had targets on their back to begin with. And they do it because it's the right thing to do."

Several rescue leaders said the State Department is working with a contractor and getting about a plane a week out of Afghanistan, usually with a couple of hundred people on board. The State Department declined to comment on details of its operations.

"I would say we're making glacial progress," said Jesse Jensen, co-founder of the civilian rescue group Task Force Argo.

'The Last Day of the World'

Over the past year, Task Force Argo has refocused its efforts from rescuing people from Afghanistan, to resettling several hundred of the group's evacuees who remain in what is known as Humanitarian City, a refugee compound in the United Arab Emirates, Jensen said.

CBS News reported in early August that about 6,500 Afghan evacuees remain at the compound, waiting for their cases to be processed. The State Department told CBS that not all the Afghans there will qualify to come to the U.S., and it is urging other countries to resettle them.

"We always knew from day one that this would be a multi-phase operation," Jensen said.

One of the Afghans Task Force Argo rescued, whom National Review is referring to by only his first name, Mohammed, spent about ten months in Humanitarian City before he flew to the U.S. in early August. Mohammed was employed for years with American and British security firms in Afghanistan, he said, working with the U.S. Embassy and military to guard clients. He said he knows of several of his former colleagues who have since joined the Taliban.

Mohammed said that when the Taliban arrived in Kabul last August, it seemed as if "it was the last day of the world for Afghanistan."

Mohammed said he tried to get family members through the crowd and into the airport. The Taliban came looking for him at one point, but he was hiding in a garage. Task Force Argo eventually got him on a plane to the United Arab Emirates, but he had to leave his wife and six kids behind.

"It was very difficult," he said of leaving his family. "I was crying. What was going to happen to my family? But I had no choice."

In mid August, Mohammed was in the National Conference Center, a Department of Homeland Security facility in Leesburg, Va., where evacuees finish paperwork, obtain work permits, and take classes to help prepare them for life in the U.S. He wasn't sure exactly where he would live after he left the center. He has applied for a green card and is hopeful that if and when that is approved, he can bring his wife and kids to the U.S. too.

In the meantime, he's hoping to find work, maybe as a mechanic or an electrician.

"America is the land of opportunity," he said. "And I will have opportunity, I'm sure."

'We Did Not Have to Leave in That Manner'

One source of frustration for veterans involved in the volunteer rescue community has been the disparate treatment they've seen given to Afghan and Ukrainian refugees.

A recent report by Reveal and the Center for Investigative Reporting found that more than 66,000 Afghans have applied for temporary entry to the U.S. through a process called humanitarian parole, at a cost of $575 per person. Only 123 had been approved through mid August, according to the report.  Meanwhile, after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the U.S. created a special humanitarian parole process for Ukrainians. Of the 88,000 who applied, 68,000 have been approved, with no fees collected, according to the Reveal report.

While Afghans who fought alongside Americans are in legal limbo, "it's near instant approval for Ukrainians who never did anything with the U.S. forces," Owen said. "It's not a good look."

Rescue-organization leaders are calling on the U.S. government to create a Uniting for Afghanistan program, mirroring the Uniting for Ukraine initiative that the Biden administration announced in April, which provides a streamlined process for Ukrainians who fled the war.

"The process is already there," Owen said. "It's not reinventing the wheel."

In an email, a State Department spokesman said they have undertaken efforts to streamline the SIV process, and to "process SIV applications more expeditiously while safeguarding our national security." The department is supporting travel for SIV holders with visas as well as the SIV applicants who are farthest along in the process, the spokesman said. With no embassy in Afghanistan, the State Department also is transferring cases to other U.S. Embassies and consulates around the world where applicants are able to appear, according to the email.

"We strongly encourage Afghanistan's neighbors to keep their borders open to allow entry for Afghans and [to] coordinate with humanitarian international organizations," the email said.

Stern, with Project Dynamo, said that a year after the U.S. withdrawal, no one looks at the evacuation and says, "That's what right looks like." He believes that the optics of the withdrawal — the chaos, the killings, the abandoned American allies — will negatively affect the country's standing in the world for years or decades to come.

He also worries that bad optics will make it easier for terrorists to recruit. A kid in Afghanistan, he said, could look at the U.S. withdrawal, conclude that America is weak, and think, "The Taliban won. God won. My religion won. We defeated the Great Satan. Therefore, if the imams tell me to go blow somebody up, or do whatever, rape women, cut people's heads off, or anything crazy, there's now no counterargument to that immorality."

Despite his concerns, Stern said he doesn't look back at his service in Afghanistan as a mistake.

"I do look back and say, lots of good men got tore up. There were lots of widows made, and lots of single moms out the there, that I get upset thinking about how they feel about it," he said.

Owen said he has conflicting thoughts on the overall rescue effort. Early in the evacuation, he said, if he would have gotten his way, "we would have removed every educated female, every shining star, every combat vet, everybody with any skillset, we would have removed all of them from Afghanistan and brought them to America." But looking at the bigger picture, he wonders now whether that was the right goal. "What would we then leave in Afghanistan?"

"Afghanistan has got to stand on its own two feet. How we get to that point, I don't know" he said. "I know taking every educated individual out of it is not the way to go about it, though."

The biggest problem, in his mind: The U.S. failed too many allies who needed help the most.

"We had to leave Afghanistan," he said. "We did not have to leave it in that manner."

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‘They Want Them Dead’: One Year after Botched Afghanistan Withdrawal, Thousands of U.S. Allies Remain in Peril

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