As US forces push on with a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan, veterans of the 20-year conflict are scrambling to save the Afghan interpreters they once worked alongside, and whose lives are now at risk.
The effort is being driven by former service members motivated to help after seeing the desperate situation faced by their former comrades-in-arms. The plight of Afghan interpreters has become especially dire since the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country.
Advocacy groups estimate there could be as many as 20,000 Afghan nationals who worked with the US, along with 53,000 of their family members, eligible for special immigrant visas.
The fall of Kabul the past weekend has made their escape dangerous and uncertain. The airport, currently under the control of the US military, is the only way out, but it is surrounded by Taliban fighters who they fear will seek retribution against them for working with the enemy.
“I’ve been getting non-stop WhatsApp, Twitter messages from Afghanistan from over a hundred interpreters. I only know a handful of them, but they’re just reaching out to anybody that can help,” says Alex Plitsas, a veteran who deployed in Iraq and as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan.
“There’s kind of an impromptu network who have reacted to what’s going on. Most of us are out [of the armed forces] at this point and we’ve kind of been working behind the scenes with members of congressional staff, State Department, Department of Defense, to try and make them aware of individual cases.”
Their days are taken up by a flurry of online advocacy, lobbying, writing to political representatives and trying to guide their former colleagues to safety by phone from thousands of miles away. Many of them have spent months warning of the impending disaster for interpreters as the US forces withdrew, to little avail.
Some of the interpreters are eligible to leave but have been unable to reach the airport safely due to crowds and Taliban checkpoints. Others applied for visas years ago but their applications have been stuck in bureaucratic limbo, and they are now unsure if they will be able to leave. The process has been complicated further as fleeing embassy staff have reportedly destroyed documents and passports as they left.
Although the Taliban has promised to not seek reprisals against Afghans who worked with the US and other Nato powers, the reality on the ground is shaping up differently.
“Today I spent a couple hours going back and forth with a former special forces interpreter who is in hiding in Kabul,” says Plitsas, who is interrupting a family vacation in Italy to be involved with the evacuation effort. “His family in another city in Afghanistan, the Taliban came to his house and his family said he wasn’t there. They cursed them and called him ‘the son of Biden’, and then they were going to slaughter him once they got their hands on him.”
The scenes of desperate Afghans crowding the airport have prompted a wave of criticism of the Biden administration’s withdrawal. Although the deadline for US forces to exit the country was agreed by former president Donald Trump in a deal struck with the Taliban, Mr Biden has been blamed for a failure to act with urgency to process visas for Afghan allies who would be at risk following a US exit.
JC Hendrickson, a senior director of refugee and asylum policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee, which is working with the US to settle the visa applicants, told The Independent on Wednesday: “This process certainly should have been started earlier.” He added: “The urgency on this side of things just doesn’t seem like it was there.”
Some of the veterans involved in the effort see it as their duty to help their former comrades, even as the US military has prioritised the evacuation of Americans.
“The warrior ethos for the US army is that we never leave a fallen comrade. We don’t leave anybody on the field of battle — and that includes our interpreters — to be slaughtered,” says Plitsas.
“I don’t think most people realise these interpreters do very important jobs,” he adds. “They are our eyes and ears and they become like family after a while. I think most of them have seen more combat than the majority of the forces who deployed. They put their lives on the line, they worked right alongside us exposing themselves to the same risk and we have a moral obligation to them.”
Heather King, a 39-year-old US air force veteran who served for 9 ½ years, also sees the rescue efforts as a moral obligation.
“We’re all collectively activating our networks to try to uphold this promise that we as a nation made to the Afghan people,” she says.
“We’re really just trying to fulfil that moral obligation. This isn’t about politics for so many of us, this has nothing to do with politics. It is a humanitarian issue, and it’s at the core of who we are as veterans.”
King says part of their efforts is about pushing to rescue Afghans who worked with the US, and not just American citizens. She says that Biden’s remarks have focused mostly on Americans, which is “simply not good enough.”
“One of the things that we were really trying to combat is this narrative that the Afghan people don’t want to take care of themselves. That’s simply not true. This is the proof of it: there are so many, especially women who have risked their lives and the lives of their children and their families to help US personnel and our efforts in Afghanistan. And they believed in a better Afghanistan,” she adds.
King says she and others have been trying to help people navigate the maze of checkpoints and paperwork to get out.
“People are afraid. They’re afraid to leave where they are, or they’re stuck at the gate and they can’t get through. Some are getting stuck at that first wall of checkpoints. [The Taliban] are just indiscriminately stopping people and checking people in – some aren’t making it past there. A lot of people are afraid because they don’t know how to get out.”
In the midst of their efforts to help their Afghan colleagues, there has also been anger about how this evacuation crisis was allowed to happen. Emir Hadzic, a retired US Marine Corps infantry unit leader, has been working to get the families of two interpreters he worked with out of the country. One of the families spent two days at the airport trying to leave.
“It’s because of domestic political issues. Politicians no longer have the mettle to do what’s right, they do what’s politically prudent for their local consumption,” he says.
He puts the blame both on Donald Trump, for setting the hasty withdrawal into motion, and for Biden for following through.
“He has reversed basically every policy that President Trump had, so why would he decide to fulfil this one? The Taliban had been violating that agreement while they were negotiating it.”
The US military has deployed 5,200 troops to Hamid Karzai airport, the Department of Defense said on Thursday. More than 2,000 people have been evacuated from Kabul and arrived at staging areas to be processed, according to Army Major General William D "Hank" Taylor, the Joint Staff’s deputy director for regional operations. They added that since the start of the evacuation operation on August 14, the US military has airlifted about 7,000 evacuees. But as of Thursday, many interpreters were still unable to reach the airport. The US military has so far been reluctant to leave the airport in order to retrieve Americans outside of the perimeter in Kabul.
President Biden has said he would extend the deadline of 31 August for the US withdrawal if not all Americans had been evacuated by then. The president is likely to continue to face questions over his administration’s handling of the evacuation.
In the twilight of America’s longest war, Plitsas says he sees the rescue of his Afghan friends as a way to achieve some good in a conflict in which there was little.
“I think it’s some form of closure, and getting some tangible goal out of this now it’s over,” he says.
“The goal was originally to degrade Al Qaeda and make sure they couldn’t attack, then it morphed into going out and counterinsurgency against the Taliban. And now after 20 years of fighting to a stalemate, $2 trillion, 2,500 deaths, the Taliban now control more territory than they did before 9/11. They are armed to the teeth because they’ve taken over the stockpiles of weapons that we provided to the Afghan military.
“We do take some solace in the fact that it wasn’t used as a base of operation to attack the United States or our allies again after 9/11. But other than that, it really makes you question what your contribution was.”
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