The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In evacuation mission’s 11th hour, hope dims for Afghans seeking escape

A U.S. Marine checks a woman as she goes through the Evacuation Control Center (ECC) at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 28. (U.S. Marine Corps/Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/Reuters)
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Efforts to assist people hoping to escape Taliban-controlled Afghanistan grew more urgent on Sunday, as renewed militant threats left Afghans largely shut out of evacuation flights ahead of Tuesday’s withdrawal deadline.

The White House has highlighted the scale of the mission, which has moved out more than 100,000 people on U.S. and allied flights and was hastily arranged following the backed government’s unexpected fall. But the number of desperate Afghans unable to get out may be far higher.

Groups involved with the evacuation effort said many Afghans the Biden administration vowed it would help, beginning with those eligible for prioritized consideration under a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, have been unable to reach safety.

“We’re leaving allied Afghans and potentially Americans behind,” said Sunil Varghese, policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project.

He praised members of the military and civil society groups for their efforts to help Afghans vulnerable to Taliban reprisal depart the country but said the Biden administration should have begun its evacuation effort far earlier.

“I’m just disappointed that it was so late and so dangerous and so difficult,” Varghese said. “We could’ve done better.”

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People familiar with the operation said very few individuals beyond U.S. citizens had been permitted to gain airport access over the weekend, as the Pentagon winds its mission down and the overall pace of relocations slows.

Instead, many Afghans who applied for or obtained visas through the SIV program were turned away or unable to get through the airport gates controlled by U.S. and other foreign military forces. Even some Afghans with green cards, which allow them to reside permanently in the United States, have been unsuccessful, these people said.

A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said there had been no policy decision to exclusively admit American citizens.

But the official acknowledged that security threats had made it harder to facilitate entry for those who are not citizens, especially since a massive suicide bombing Thursday killed 13 service members assisting with the evacuation and about 170 mostly Afghan civilians.

Since then, airport gates have been largely closed. One official described the gruesome incident as a “capping point” for the evacuation mission, prompting an adjustment of troops’ security posture and a narrowed focus on transporting American citizens for the period that remains.

But advocates said that before the bombing, as well, many Afghans with visas to enter European or other nations or with seats on charter flights faced major problems getting through the throngs and into the airport.

On Sunday, advocacy networks traded rumors that flights out of Kabul would be shut down as soon as later that day. While President Biden has said the mission would end Aug. 31, officials have not said when exactly evacuation flights will halt and when remaining troops and diplomats will be gone.

People involved in those networks described increasingly frantic attempts to secure 11th-hour airport entry and flights for Afghans, some of whom are green-card holders or dependents or close relatives of American citizens or legal residents. Some are young children separated from their parents.

Advocates said some of those turned away have had visas for European or other nations or seats on charter flights.

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James Miervaldis, an Army veteran who serves on the board of the advocacy group No One Left Behind, said his organization had a list of 200 Afghans who had SIV visas and expected to be evacuated but weren’t.

He said troops posted at the airport entry points had been asked to make impossible decisions as they reviewed documentation and decided who could move forward under chaotic and perilous circumstances.

“We've asked these Marines and soldiers on these gates to play God,” Miervaldis said. “That's an awful, awful burden.”

One of the Afghan military’s elite commandos, who have worked closely with the United States, said he had been trying to get the attention of U.S. officials for days to appeal for assistance getting out.

“We cannot reach our U.S. mentors in order to help us,” he said in an email, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid drawing Taliban attention. “We need an emergency evacuation like the other Afghan soldiers, but we cannot get inside the Kabul airport unless we have some supporting documents or recommendations directly from inside the airport.”

The Taliban has been calling him, he said.

“I don’t know how long I can continue this.”

A senior Taliban figure on Saturday promised the group would not block those with valid travel documents from leaving, a claim that has not allayed the fears of many Afghans.

They made it out of Afghanistan. But their path ahead is deeply uncertain.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that the United States would continue to try to help Afghans depart after Tuesday, citing efforts to secure an arrangement to keep the airport running and to help some at-risk Afghans depart by road.

“We have very significant leverage to work with over the weeks and months ahead to incentivize the Taliban to make good on its commitments,” Blinken told ABC News.

Michael “Mick” Mulroy is a former Pentagon official and Marine veteran who was among the early members of a volunteer network dubbed “Dunkirk” that has organized online to help Afghans get out. Given the slim time remaining and the fact that Afghans appeared to be mostly blocked from airport access, he said, he and his fellow volunteers plan to focus on remote support for Afghans trying to complete SIV applications.

Others advocates have been exploring ground evacuation routes, hoping to help Afghans reach neighboring nations including Pakistan and Tajikistan.

Varghese urged the Biden administration to ensure that American personnel are posted in such countries to process what could become a crush of refugee applications.

Before the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government, U.S. officials had hoped Turkey would assume responsibility for securing the airport. Officials have not confirmed a report that Turkey and Qatar are likely to do so, under Taliban rule.

Until arrangements for access and flight operations are firmed up, Miervaldis said, the effort to help Afghans escape once the U.S. military is gone will remain clouded by uncertainty.

“We’re all in a holding pattern,” he said.

Alex Horton contributed to this report.