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‘I’m waiting for my number’: Time running out for Afghan allies caught in U.S. evacuation

Sayed, an Afghan who served as an interpreter for the U.S. military, always pauses before opening email from the State Department about his efforts to evacuate himself and his family from Kabul.

First, he prays. Since the U.S. military began its withdrawal from Afghanistan, hostile Taliban forces have been moving steadily closer to the capital city.

“I’m waiting for my number,” Sayed (not his real name) told The Washington Times in a Facebook interview. “When I will get shot, when I will get killed? I don’t know. But I am waiting for that.”

An interpreter for eight years who also worked as a contractor for the Afghan military, Sayed was approved by the U.S. for a Special Immigrant Visa in 2019. Among the documentation Sayed used to prove his service to the U.S. military was a certificate of appreciation signed by then-Col. Mark A. Milley, now a general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“[Sayed] is in keeping with the finest traditions of the United States of America’s Department of Defense, the Afghan Ministry of Defense, and the Islamic Transitional Government of Afghanistan,” states a certificate signed in 2003 by Col. Milley, who was in charge of a camp where Sayed worked early in the war.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul withdrew its approval in May because of what it said was Sayed’s “lack of faithful and valuable service.” The news was devastating.

Sayed said he hadn’t been told of any specific allegations against him. The Washington Times is concealing his identity to shield him from possible Taliban retribution.

Gen. Milley did not comment on Sayed’s case specifically, although people involved in the Special Immigrant Visa process described the certificate he signed for Sayed as routine.

Gen. Milley has spoken out about the need to ensure the safety of Afghan enablers. He said it is a “moral imperative” for the U.S. to “take care of those that have worked closely with us.”

Sayed is one of 726 applicants whose visa requests were denied or revoked in the second quarter of this fiscal year. The Biden administration is moving amid heavy criticism to address a backlog of about 18,000 applicants and announced that 700 Afghans who have been cleared to emigrate to the U.S. will be relocated to Fort Lee, Virginia, ultimately with 1,800 of their relatives.

Kim Staffieri, the founder of the Association of Wartime Allies, is advocating for Sayed and other Afghans whose lives are in danger and need visas. She said time is running out for them and appeals of their visa rejections could take years through the usual bureaucratic process.

“It’s often like starting the process all over again,” she said.

Ms. Staffieri speaks with Sayed daily and receives calls from others in his situation day and night. The calls, she said, are increasing as the U.S. military drawdown accelerates.

“It’s intense,” she said. “And relentless. I’m always waiting for their voice to go silent. That’s rough.”

Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, said making revisions to the Special Immigrant Visa approval process is essential but too slow to help those trapped in Afghanistan.

“It isn’t going to help now,” Mr. Crocker said at a recent panel discussion. “We have got to resort to emergency measures. We need to drop requirements for all 14 or 13 boxes to have been checked. We need to get these people to safety and then sort it out.”

Lawmakers welcomed the administration’s announcement about relocating some applicants to Fort Lee. Still, some of them fear the notoriously cumbersome visa process will continue to hinder efforts to get the remaining applicants to safety.

“While this announcement is a positive step towards getting some SIV applicants to safety, the lack of a plan for the remaining SIV applicants still waiting to complete the vetting process is deeply concerning,” said Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee. “This has been an extremely haphazard withdrawal from the beginning, and the Biden administration’s inability to provide a detailed strategy on how they will support and protect our remaining Afghan partners is unacceptable.”

The House and Senate have proposed legislation to streamline the process and increase the number of Special Immigrant Visas. But with an approval process that takes an average of 703 days and a situation on the ground that becomes less stable by the day, the U.S. is working against the clock.

“This is a real crisis situation,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, said during a panel discussion last week hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And so we’ve got to be creative about how we address it and recognize that the bureaucracy may have originally been set up because of certain circumstances, but this is a situation now where we’ve got to look for ways to make the bureaucracy work to help those people who are in danger.”

The White House recently announced Operation Allies Refuge to relocate approximately 2,500 Afghans who have applied for Special Immigrant Visas. The majority are slated to be relocated to third countries to await approval to come to the U.S.

Ms. Staffieri said the Special Immigrant Visa process is the State Department‘s most restrictive, but she estimates that 60% to 75% of those denied eventually will receive approval. That points to a tendency to deny applicants for illegitimate reasons, she said.

Sayed relocated his family to Kabul after it became too dangerous to stay in his rural hometown. He said it was widely known that he had worked as an interpreter.

The city would provide him anonymity, he said, but it is no longer safe to take his two children to a playground. He no longer works. He doesn’t feel comfortable stepping out for just a few minutes to have a smoke.

He said the situation has deteriorated quickly since the military withdrawal was announced. The

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