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Trapped by Taliban takeover, Afghans who helped the U.S. fear they've been abandoned

"We should view this as a Dunkirk moment," members of Congress say.

While the Taliban were tightening their grip Monday on Afghanistan, a Chicago-area lawyer was struggling to reassure two terrified women trapped in Kabul via text message that all was not lost.

"I don't have answers for them," said the lawyer, whom NBC News is not identifying so as not to endanger the women, whom the lawyer met several years ago through a mentorship program.

Their parents had urged the women last month to flee, but they refused "because they believed in the U.S. promise that Kabul would be safe," the lawyer said.

"Now they are locked in their apartments with no male relatives and a history of working with the United States and the United Nations making them a target," the lawyer said.

So they are burning their records "and waiting for the day the Taliban knocks on their door," the lawyer said.

Thousands more Afghans like them were in peril Monday, including people who had worked alongside the U.S. as translators or advisers, and idealistic young people who worked as journalists or as activists and educators to improve the lot of women.

President Joe Biden speaks about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House, on Aug. 16, 2021.Evan Vucci / AP

President Joe Biden vowed Monday not to abandon them. And State Department spokesman Ned Price said a "gargantuan" effort to get them to safety was underway.

"It's been through that operation that 2,000 Afghans have been able to reach the United States," Price said. "Most of those Afghans have now been able to start their new lives through resettlement agencies. Just a month or so ago, we recognized that the need could be even greater for Afghans who were vulnerable, who were maybe at risk."

Still, tens of thousands more are in danger of falling into the clutches of the Taliban, including the two young women trapped in Kabul.

"I've never seen people who love their country as much as these girls and who worked so hard to make it a better place," the lawyer said.

Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have called on Biden to kick the State Department bureaucracy into high gear to get the Afghans the visas they need to get out of harm's way.

"Many brave Afghans have risked their lives in order to support American troops and their efforts to defeat terrorists," Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said on Twitter. "In return, America has a moral obligation to provide these Afghans with safety from the Taliban who seek to harm them and their families for assisting America's mission in Afghanistan."

Democratic Reps. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey and Jason Crow of Colorado urged Biden in a letter Sunday to "immediately facilitate the evacuation from Kabul of Afghans whose active support for our efforts in their country and for the advancement of democracy and human rights there make them likely targets of Taliban retribution."

The administration needs to immediately find a destination where the Afghans "can be evacuated now" while they wait for their applications for Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, to be approved.

"With the collapse of Kabul an imminent possibility, we should view this as a Dunkirk moment," they wrote.

Crow was the prime mover behind the Allies Act, which the House passed last month and which aims to expand and expedite the SIV program for vulnerable Afghans.

The SIV program, which was set up in 2009 specifically for Afghans who worked in the country for the U.S. government, has a yearslong backlog.

Meanwhile, groups like Amnesty International warned Monday that the window to help the Afghans was closing fast.

"The current course of action by the White House has only fanned the flames of this humanitarian catastrophe," Amnesty International Executive Director Paul O'Brien said in a statement. "Every moment that the Biden Administration continues not to course correct could have horrific consequences, exacerbating the already atrocious failures to support the people of Afghanistan, including Afghans who risked their lives and those of their families to provide assistance to the U.S."

About 80,000 Afghans — 20,000 principal applicants and their families — have applied for SIV visas, said Timothy Young, spokesman for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

The group's president and CEO, Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, said, "The U.S. government have likely rescued less than 2,000 Afghan interpreters and their family members at this point."

And as the rest wait for their visas to be approved, the Taliban have been taking over their country.

"That's the grim outlook that keeps us up at night," Young said in an email. "And that figure is only Afghan allies through the Special Immigrant Visa process. It does not include the countless journalists, academics, NGO workers, women's right activists, and other civil society leaders who share our deeply-held ideals, and whose lives are in jeopardy because of it."

Biden vowed in April to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 and end America's longest war. His pledge came over a year after the Trump administration brokered an agreement with the Taliban — but not with the now-fallen Afghan government — that paved the way for U.S. troops to begin withdrawing.

In June, the State Department reassured NBC News that it had been planning for the possibility that Afghans would flee to surrounding countries and was already in touch with the leaders of those countries.

Asked at the time about the plans, Defense Department spokesman John Kirby said in an email: "While there is no tasking to evacuate Afghans at this time, we have that capability and the Secretary is confident that we would be able to execute if necessary."

In the Chicago suburbs, the lawyer said those are turning out to be empty words.

"We pulled out and left them with nothing," the lawyer said between sobs. "They weren't asking for anything from us except for promises to be kept."