More Than 60,000 Interpreters, Visa Applicants Remain in Afghanistan


WASHINGTON—More than 60,000 Afghan interpreters and others who have applied for visas to seek shelter in the U.S. after working alongside American forces still remain in Afghanistan, a State Department official said Thursday.

About 33,000 Afghans, including principal applicants and their families, have already cleared the more-onerous vetting requirements and could be eligible for immediate evacuation. This is the first time that the State Department has provided a number on those left behind since the Afghanistan government collapsed this summer.

A total of 62,000 Afghans are believed to have been left behind, the official said.

U.S. evacuation flights, facilitated by Qatar and local organizers on the ground, have stepped up in recent weeks. Seats are prioritized for Americans and U.S. residents, but some are available for Afghans who have cleared vetting in the visa application process.

The State Department official said that the remaining 29,000 visa applicants are in earlier stages of the application process. The figure doesn’t include their family members at this stage. The vetting steps aim to verify their employment history and check for connections to U.S.-designated terrorist groups.

The U.S. is co-organizing a couple of flights a week, but scheduling depends on conditions at Kabul airport—which is only partly operational—and the weather. It could take until well into 2022 to complete the evacuation of those who already qualify for flights. If the other 29,000 visa applicants pass vetting, they too would become eligible for evacuation along with their immediate family members.

The Special Immigrant Visa program was set up in 2009 to help those at risk of Taliban reprisal for helping the U.S., including interpreters for the U.S. military and diplomatic and foreign-aid workers.

The Biden administration came under intense pressure this summer to do more to evacuate applicants, beginning emergency flights out for those who had cleared vetting in July. The premature collapse of the Kabul administration meant that most were left behind.

Afghan visa applicants left behind are increasingly desperate to leave due to deteriorating economic conditions in the country.

Kianoush, who was approved for an evacuation flight that was scheduled to take place the week that Kabul collapsed in August, is among the thousands waiting for news of a flight. He has been hiding after working on sensitive projects alongside U.S. forces at the Afghan interior ministry.

“We are jobless and the winter is coming. There is no food, or clear future,” he said in a telephone interview.

In the chaotic evacuation effort that took place in the summer, the U.S. and its allies evacuated over 100,000 Afghans. Some made it through the crowds at Kabul airport without paperwork, while American citizens and visa applicants were unable to enter and board flights. More than 70,000 Afghans arrived in the U.S.

The State Department said afterward it believed the majority of Afghans who worked alongside the U.S.-led NATO coalition had been left behind.

The Biden administration promised to evacuate all Americans from Afghanistan after the collapse, but stopped short of offering the same assurances to Afghan allies at risk of retribution.

Since the fall of Kabul the U.S. has relocated 479 Americans and 450 U.S. residents with their families, the State Department said in an update this week. It has also evacuated 2,200 Afghan visa applicants and family members since the fall of Kabul.

Fewer than a dozen U.S. citizens who are ready to leave Afghanistan remain in the country, the State Department said.

Groups of volunteers that have organized private evacuation flights say the true number of Americans who remain and want to leave is higher. This is because the U.S. won’t let them bring dependent family members.

Mustafa, 33 years old, is an American who worked as a translator for U.S. forces. He took on responsibility for his sister and six children after her husband was believed killed in the bombing at Kabul’s airport. He is staying behind with hope that a private volunteer organization will evacuate him with his sister and children because she would struggle to survive on her own without a male guardian.

“Mustafa could have left long ago as an American citizen,” said a spokeswoman for Task Force Argo, a volunteer group trying to help him. “He is staying back to protect his family and they are all waiting together in Kabul for an evacuation option that helps non-passport-holders.”

The State Department said it must follow U.S. immigration law in regard to evacuations and that only those eligible to enter the U.S. can be evacuated.

The U.S. no longer has a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, a factor adding to the difficulty in processing cases.

Last month, the U.S. signed an accord with Qatar that established the Gulf nation as the U.S. protecting power in Afghanistan. As part of the agreement, the Qataris agreed to establish a U.S. interests section within its embassy to provide consular services and monitor U.S. diplomatic facilities in Afghanistan. There is no date set for reopening an embassy.

Corrections & Amplifications
More than 60,000 Afghan interpreters and others who have applied for visas to seek shelter in the U.S. after working alongside American forces remain in Afghanistan. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said they are seeking asylum, a different immigrant status requiring that an applicant already be in the U.S. (Corrected on Dec. 16)

Write to Jessica Donati at [email protected]

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