'Dreadfully nightmarish': Life on the run in Afghanistan

‘Dreadfully nightmarish’: Life on the run in Afghanistan

Mohammad Firoz is living in Kabul, but he says it’s not much of a life anymore.

He’s effectively been on the run for two years, since the fall of the government and the U.S. withdrawal stranded him amid a sea of enemies. As a Western-oriented English speaker who spent 14 years assisting nongovernmental organizations and journalists during the American-led war, he is a target for Taliban retaliation.

Two of his sons don’t go to school, and the one who does always has to be escorted by another family member, after one son was stopped on the way to school by people probing Mr. Firoz’s whereabouts.

He says he could maybe find work, but that’s a risk because other people who worked for western-allied NGOs have been “hunted” through their work by Taliban intelligence teams. There is even a standing monetary award offered for information that leads the Taliban to people like him, he said.

While relatives and friends resettle in the U.S., Mr. Firoz said he waits, and worries, along with tens of thousands of others.

“I lost my job, I lost my income and cannot support and feed my family as I did before, my family and my children worry and fear about me because hundreds of people like me have been arrested or killed in the last two years,” he said.

Such is life for one of the thousands of allies who bolstered the U.S. war effort, but were left behind when President Biden ordered a final troop pullout two years ago.

“I can frankly say that everyone who is living in Afghanistan, especially those who worked with the international community, are living in a dreadfully nightmarish situation,” said Mr. Firoz, whom The Washington Times granted use of a pseudonym in order to speak without endangering his life.

Brix Gustavson, a former Navy SEAL, spent 19 months in Afghanistan and traveled to 20 different provinces working for U.S. organizations. Mr. Firoz was his translator for five of those months in the northern part of the country working for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

He said Mr. Firoz and others like him signed up believing American promises of salvation for their home county, and rescue for themselves. That was particularly strong for Mr. Firoz, who grew up with a westernized outlook in Kabul, then saw the U.S. arrive to liberate his city.

“To have these superheroes come in, wearing the name and playing the game, this is the United States Army coming in there, what young man wouldn’t be lured by that?” he said. “And when the word went out, you can make money, you can improve your English and hey, if you work hard and prove yourself to these people they’ll even take you back to the United States when you’re done, it was really a dream come true for many young Afghan men and women.”

To understand the U.S. promise, you have to understand what it was like in Afghanistan after that point. Those on the ground had to choose: Did they back the U.S., or did they ally with the Taliban?

People like Mr. Firoz backed the U.S. and, more than that, Mr. Gustavson said, they, “overextended themselves toward our cause” because they had the Americans’ promise of rescue waiting.

But, when the time came to redeem the promise, the U.S. closed the cashier’s window.

Mr. Gustavson said he thought back to the images of Afghans clinging to the side of a C-17 transport plane as it lifted off in 2021, gripping it as it rose thousands of feet into the air.

“Their fear, their desire to get away from evil and their belief in the United States is so strong that that enabled them to hold onto the side of a plane and take off,” he said.

The Biden administration, for its part, celebrates those whom it did airlift out.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the U.S. has welcomed some 115,000 Afghans since the summer of 2021, offering them unprecedented levels of support.

“America keeps its promises, and no promise is more sacrosanct than the one we make to support and protect those who serve alongside our troops,” Mr. Mayorkas said in a statement last month marking two years since the airlift. “I am immensely proud of the intragovernmental workforce, veterans’ networks, and American people who have stood by and supported our Afghan allies in their moment of need. We are ready and eager to work with Congress to finish the mission.”

He said the administration did its job in bringing them here, and he said it’s up to Capitol Hill now to give them a pathway to permanent status.

But there’s a contradiction. True Afghan allies — those who worked with the U.S. — already have a path to permanent status and eventually citizenship through the Special Immigrant Visa, a program designed specifically for those who aided the war effort.

The problem is that the Biden administration also airlifted out tens of thousands of Afghans who provided no such aid. They were just the ones who made it through Taliban checkpoints in Kabul to reach the airport.

Mr. Firoz, 38, said he woke up one morning to see a picture that his cousin had posted on social media from inside a U.S. plane, en route to Qatar.

“What did really happen in here? People like me who worked for years with U.S. and western foreigners they left behind, and people who did not work even for one day, they have been all evacuated — thousands of them,” he told The Times.

Mr. Firoz says he doesn’t keep in touch with any other allies who got left behind because it isn’t safe.

State Department data shows that as of March 31, there were roughly 73,000 special visa applications that were at the start of the process in terms of beginning to submit paperwork, and 69,000 others who had completed their documents and were awaiting the State Department’s initial decision.

Nearly 10,000 others received initial approval and were awaiting interviews with the State Department. Another 47,000 family members — spouses and children — were associated with those cases.

But the high number of applicants doesn’t mean they’ll all qualify.

The approval rate was roughly 30% as of late last year and early this year.

Mr. Firoz says he first applied for the visa in 2014 but the State Department rejected him, saying it couldn’t verify his work on behalf of the U.S. He reapplied again, got a case number in August 2022 and submitted his documents a month later.

He said he’s received replies telling him the State Department has the documents it needs, and he’s currently among the tens of thousands awaiting an initial approval.

The State Department says that step averages about 140 days, though Mr. Firoz has now been waiting more than twice that long.

If he is approved, he’ll still need to go through a Homeland Security check and an in-person interview with the State Department. That turns out to be a huge hurdle because the U.S. doesn’t have a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, which means Mr. Firoz would probably have to find a way out of the country — likely to Pakistan — in order to get to an American embassy.

Mr. Firoz told The Times that even with what he’s experienced over the last two years, he’d still go do it again.

“Yes, definitely,” he said.

If he does reach the U.S., Mr. Firoz said he would like to live in California.