WASHINGTON — Thousands of Afghans who are eligible for a U.S. evacuation out of the country now face one final life-and-death hurdle — getting to Kabul without being captured or killed by the Taliban.
The Biden administration this week emailed hundreds of Afghans who worked for the U.S. government telling them to prepare for evacuation to the U.S. in coming days, and has promised others will be flown to a third country soon. But the Afghans have to make their way to the capital of Kabul on their own in order to be evacuated.
With the Taliban advancing against Afghan security forces in every corner of the country as U.S. troops withdraw, several Afghans who are eligible for a U.S. visa told NBC News they fear they will be stranded in far-flung towns and are struggling to find the money and means to get themselves and their families to Kabul.
“Our city is surrounded," said Mohammad, a 33-year-old IT technician in Kandahar who worked for the U.S. military. "It can fall to Taliban militants any time."
Afghans contacted by the U.S. government and offered flights to a military base in Virginia “have reached out to us begging for help because they do not have the resources to fly to Kabul,” said Chris Purdy, project manager for Veterans for American Ideals at Human Rights First.
“These Afghans know they cannot travel by land because the Taliban have captured the roads, and they know if they stay where they are then the Taliban will find them and kill them in their homes,” he said.
For the first U.S. evacuation expected next week, the Afghans were told to show up to Kabul for a final medical exam as soon as Monday, according to an email shared with NBC News and accounts from refugee advocacy groups.
But for Afghans outside of Kabul, getting to the capital requires reaching an airport safely for a local flight, and having enough money to pay for airfare. Dozens of Afghans have written to the nonprofit Association of War Allies saying they lacked the funds for the plane ticket or could not safely reach a regional airport, said Kim Staffieri, co-founder and executive director of the group.
“By not providing a way for those individuals to fly to Kabul to board their flight, the U.S. government is essentially abandoning them to their fate,” said Purdy of Human Rights First.
But senior State Department officials told reporters on Wednesday that the U.S. could not transport the Afghans to Kabul as the U.S. military no longer had a country-wide presence and had pulled out most of its troops in line with a Sept. 11 deadline for withdrawal.
“In order to come on an evacuation flight, they would have to get themselves to Kabul,” one of the senior officials said. “Obviously, we don't have national U.S. military presence. We don't have an ability to provide transportation for them.”
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the administration was undertaking something “that was never initially envisioned” as part of the visa program for Afghans who worked as interpreters, drivers or other roles.
“And so, we are doing all that we can, consistent with conditions on the ground, consistent with the fact that the safety and security of the American people and our service members, our diplomats, other U.S. government personnel is also a priority for us,” Price told reporters on Thursday.
'Pray for us'
Mohammad, the IT technician in Kandahar, asked not to be identified to avoid retribution by the Taliban. During his five-year stint working for the U.S. government, he said, he received three letters from the Taliban threatening to kill him if he didn’t quit his job working with the “infidel Americans.”
Refugee advocates vouched for his case, and he said he received an email from U.S. immigration authorities this week telling him he had been approved for a Special Immigrant Visa and needed to be ready to leave on a flight from Kabul to the U.S. within days.
But he said the Taliban have steadily gained ground in nearby districts, with the sound of gunfire and shelling keeping his family awake at night.
"We don't have any electricity here," he said. "We don’t have (running) water."
Mohammad said driving to Kabul was out of the question as the Taliban controlled parts of the route and could possibly stop his car and find documents revealing his association with the Americans.
After selling his possessions, Mohammad said he bought a plane ticket for $85 to fly the 300 miles from Kandahar to Kabul on Saturday. He said he didn’t have enough money to pay for his wife and six children to fly as well, so they will travel by bus but without any documents linking them to the U.S. For the moment, the road to the airport is still open, and he has asked a trusted friend to drive him to catch his flight. He said taking a taxi was too risky.
In the meantime, Mohammad will have to bid farewell to his mother, who did not qualify for a visa, and his brother, who also worked with the Americans but whose U.S. visa application is still in limbo, he said.
“I can't explain my pain. I can't tell you with words,” he said. “Pray for us.”
Another potential evacuee, who did not want to be named because he was afraid of being targeted by the Taliban, said his paperwork for the Special Immigrant Visa program had been approved and he was waiting for a visa interview — one of the final steps before being cleared for a U.S. visa.
The 22-year-old from Jalalabad said he worked as an interpreter with a U.S. artillery unit between 2018 and 2020 in Laghman province. He said he translated for U.S. troops who were advising the Afghan National Army.
At first he tried to keep his job secret, he said, telling friends and relatives he worked as a pharmacist but slowly, knowledge of his real occupation spread through his hometown from cousin to cousin, friend to friend.
“They would spread the news just like coronavirus,” he said, adding that now everyone there knows he worked as an interpreter for departing U.S. forces.
The young Afghan said he is afraid that if he stays in the country he will be captured by the Taliban and beheaded for having worked for the Americans, but he is also concerned that on the way to Kabul he could meet the same fate.
Jalalabad is only 100 miles from Kabul along a major highway — but the road cuts through areas contested by the Taliban.
Nevertheless, the interpreter said, when the U.S. embassy gives him a time for the visa interview he will risk the perilous trip because outside Afghanistan he has a future. “I don't have another choice,” he said.
His plan to reach the capital safely is, as he put it, to use “Afghani tricks.”
He will wear torn, old clothes, take a public bus along with civilians to Kabul and hope for the best, he said. His documents and perhaps a small amount of luggage he will send separately with a relative, he added.
In the meantime, every day he waits for the interview is another he fears for his life.
“The situation in Afghanistan day by day is getting worse, everyday you hear the news that this district has fallen into Taliban hands,” he said.
He currently does not leave his house in Jalalabad, and is afraid to visit his family home a 40-minute drive outside the city. Single with no children, he will have to go alone but said he wished he could take his parents and siblings as well.
He said he did not care where the U.S. plane takes him.
“I would love to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible,” he said. “It would be life saving for me.”
One former interpreter, who says he worked with U.S. special forces for seven years, said his “only option” to get to Kabul was to dress as a woman. He said he posed as the wife of a man who drove him to the capital from Kandahar, according to a video posted by the Association of Wartime Allies.
From Kabul to Virginia
The first evacuation expected next week involves about 2,500 Afghans, including 750 applicants and their families, who have cleared security vetting and had their paperwork approved, according to State Department officials. The group will be flown to the U.S. and taken to Fort Lee, a U.S. Army base in central Virginia, where the final steps for their visas will be handled along with a medical evaluation.
U.S. officials said an additional 4,000 Afghans, along with their families, will be evacuated to a third country or a U.S. military base overseas. The administration has yet to announce the third countries that will host the refugees but according to a source familiar with the discussions, Qatar has agreed to take in 2,000 Afghans and their families. The U.S. has also been talking to Kuwait about hosting the refugees, as NBC News previously reported.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken held talks with his Qatari counterpart on Thursday and is due to travel to Kuwait in coming days.
The Biden administration has come under pressure from lawmakers, veterans groups and refugee rights organizations in recent months over the fate of Afghans who face mortal danger from the Taliban because of their association with the United States. After initially indicating it had no plans to evacuate the Afghans, the administration has named an interagency team to oversee evacuations and President Joe Biden told reporters last month that “those who helped us are not going to be left behind.”
Lawmakers have proposed legislation to try to expand the pool of Afghans who can enter the United States under the Special Immigrant Visa program, which was set up more than a decade ago for Afghans who worked with U.S. troops and diplomats.
A bipartisan majority in the House voted for a bill on Thursday, introduced by Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, that would increase the number of visas allotted to Afghans who worked for the U.S. government, streamline the application process and clarify the criteria for Afghans who worked for non-governmental organizations with U.S. funding.
About 20,000 Afghans have applied to the Special Immigrant Visa program, and the administration has said about half of those are not eligible for evacuation as their applications are at an early stage.
Lawmakers and activists have criticized the administration over their approach, arguing that the program has been plagued by bureaucratic delays and that the United States should move quickly to evacuate as many Afghans as possible under the program.