In July 2021, five weeks before the Taliban captured Kabul, President Biden told the American public that “Afghan nationals who work side-by-side with U.S. forces” would not be abandoned by America. “There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose, and we will stand with you just as you stood with us,” Biden said.
I believed President Biden at that time and supported his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. But Biden’s commitment to Afghans who placed their lives in danger as translators, women’s rights advocates and civil society leaders has yet to be fulfilled. Nearly a year after the U.S. departure, more than 240,000 Afghans are still waiting for special immigrant visas and refugee and humanitarian parole applications with the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services. And this delay dishonors the personal risks they assumed on our nation’s behalf.
For most people, the Afghan problem has long passed. But as a long-time refugee-rights activist, this crisis is very personal. My involvement with evacuations in Afghanistan began last August when I worked to get Afghan allies into the U.S. Air Force planes evacuating from Kabul. As the U.S. completed its withdrawal, I realized we were abandoning thousands of additional Afghans who’d put their lives on the line while working alongside the U.S. for two decades.
In September, I organized the evacuation of six female lawmakers and their families from Afghanistan. As I scrambled to locate accommodating nations willing to accept these women, I immediately encountered bureaucratic hurdles by US authorities. Eventually, through favors, our group was able to reach Greece, via Iran. Over the next months, I was chartered four additional planes filled with refugees from Kabul to the West.
My team only assisted evacuees who’d obtained official paperwork allowing them onto U.S. military evacuation flights — but who were unable to reach the airport due to the chaos in Kabul as it fell to the Taliban. Today, over 300 of these folks are stuck in transit countries like Greece. They were fortunate enough to escape near certain death at the hands of the Taliban, but now risk languishing for years unless the US government takes immediate action to find them permanent homes.
There are over 43,000 people in Afghanistan waiting for “humanitarian parole” (HP) applications to be processed. This would allow them to live, work and study inside the U.S. as applications for their final resettlement wind their way through the State Department. With a mere 270 HP applications approved thus far, the US clearly has a long way to go.
The system designed to process Afghan HP applications is nothing if not Orwellian. To secure approval, these people – their lives now endangered due to their work alongside Americans – must make their way to a third country and attend an in-person interview at a U.S. consulate or embassy. They must then pay a $575 processing fee (the median per-capita income in Afghanistan is $378) and provide proof of targeted violence against them by the Taliban. This process is not just scarily slow, but also unbelievably opaque for everyone trying to help them. As we keep trying to help, we’re becoming increasingly frustrated at our own government’s lack of clarity and action.
Despite this labyrinth-like process, those who manage to make it to the West are clearly the lucky ones. The unlucky ones reach out to me at all hours, searching for an escape from the nightmare many are facing today.
The former director of one of the largest schools in Afghanistan, for instance, is now a refugee in Pakistan, running out of money and concerned for her physical safety. Before the Taliban takeover, she worked with various NGOs in Afghanistan and organized classes for girls in the most remote areas of the country. Her work, undertaken at the encouragement of the U.S. government, led to a death sentence once the Taliban took over. “The [Taliban] tell me that ‘you are an American and that in our villages you taught American culture to our girls, and we will not leave you alive.’” Another message, this one from a former USAID employee and civil society leader, pleads simply: “Please help us before we are taken and killed.”
Evacuating at-risk Afghans has won me awards and recognition from human rights groups. But my work is incomplete without the U.S. government living up to its commitments to provide a permanent pathway to the U.S. for every Afghan who risked their lives, and those of their families, to educate girls, build Afghan civil society, and assist U.S. NGO workers, diplomats and soldiers. The war in Afghanistan may have ended in August of 2021, but we still call on President Biden to honor his commitment to the thousands of brave Afghans left behind.
Amed Khan is an American activist, philanthropist, and humanitarian who has a long history of working in conflict zones, including Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. He is currently doing relief work in Ukraine.