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As U.S. Troops Prepare To Leave Afghanistan, Local Allies Are Left Behind

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As early as next month, United States troops will be out of Afghanistan. President Biden has said he wants the troops out sometime before September 11.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I've concluded that it's time to end America's longest war. It's time for American troops to come home.

INSKEEP: But what happens to people for whom the war cannot end because they have nowhere to go? We reached a man in Afghanistan named Khan. For his safety, we're not using his full name and also disguising his voice.

Did you watch President Biden's speech when he said that United States forces should be out of Afghanistan before September 11 of this year?

KHAN: Yes, me and my...

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: "Yes, me and my family and my 3-year-old son."

INSKEEP: That Afghan family was watching for some mention of people like them. Khan worked for the United States as a Defense Department contractor.

KHAN: We thought that Joe Biden...

ARABLOUEI: "We thought that Joe Biden would mention the Afghan interpreters and all the others who supported the U.S. mission here. But, unfortunately, he didn't mention that he would save them."

INSKEEP: Many Afghans served the United States over the past 20 years, and now many feel their past service leaves them marked for death. Another former U.S. employee asked us to withhold his name for safety.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Every day now, you can see an increase in attacks. You can see an increase of the Taliban's presence in major cities. What am I going to do after September? You know, what's going to happen in November? Am I going to be even alive by December?

INSKEEP: He's been receiving calls.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They claim they are the Taliban. They keep telling me that they know me and they told me on the phone that, look, we know where you live.

INSKEEP: At least 18,000 Afghans have asked to come to the United States under a special visa program that was designed for them, but approval is hard to get. Many people are rejected. Others have waited months or years for a visa while feeling that time is running out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Government troops in Afghanistan are losing ground to the Taliban.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: From the moment U.S. troops started pulling back, the Taliban went on the offensive.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Taliban forces are wasting no time in trying to seize as much of the country as they can.

INSKEEP: The Afghans who are now under pressure worked alongside U.S. troops and civilians as drivers, cooks, advisers and interpreters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Have you heard anything about the Taliban in our area specifically?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #1: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: NPR correspondents recorded many U.S. military interpreters at work over the past 20 years. In 2010, a U.S. Marine apologized through his Afghan interpreter to the family of a man the U.S. mistakenly killed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN CHRISTMAS: I'm here today to specifically address the shooting last night...

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #2: (Non-English language spoken).

CHRISTMAS: ...And pay respects for something that was a misfortune. It should not have happened.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #2: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: By serving the U.S., the Afghans were serving their country, supporting allies of their government. They were also risking their lives because the Taliban regarded them as enemies. Many took that risk when they were very young, though many Afghans do not track birthdays.

WESTON AMAYA: None of my interpreters knew how old they were. And I suspect many of them were probably 16 or 17 when they started working as an interpreter for the U.S.

INSKEEP: Major Weston Amaya is retired from the U.S. Army and is living now in Hawaii. He's been trying for years to bring out an interpreter who served with him.

AMAYA: I'll tell you a story about, I think, my second trip out there.

INSKEEP: Amaya was working with Afghan troops. Mortar fire and machine gunfire began raining down on their position in the mountains.

AMAYA: Through my interpreter, I was talking with them to see what intel reports they had. We had a shared map that we were circling locations with likely firing points from the fire that we were receiving.

INSKEEP: Together, the Americans and Afghans identified a cave where the enemy was hiding and then ran across 300 meters of ground to direct Afghan artillery to fire back.

AMAYA: After about five minutes of firing, the position went quiet.

INSKEEP: The whole time you're telling this story, I'm thinking it's all about communication. You're having to communicate while under fire in different languages.

AMAYA: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: That interpreter is the most crucial person.

AMAYA: Linchpin.

INSKEEP: How'd he do?

AMAYA: He was completely fearless. He and I were having to move from position to position to get the reports to get the intel. So we were moving under fire the entire time.

INSKEEP: That was 2011. In 2013, Major Amaya began supporting his interpreter's visa application to come to the United States. After five years of waiting, he was rejected. A letter from the U.S. Embassy said he was terminated from his job at one point and did not perform valuable service to the United States. As the U.S. withdraws, Major Amaya has begun trying again to help him out of the country.

What have you heard from your interpreter lately?

AMAYA: I've actually got some emails here. (Reading) Dear sir, as you are aware, the U.S. army is withdrawing from Afghanistan. And the security is getting worse day by day. And the Taliban is coming back. They will target and kill me. So please, sir, rescue me from the enemy. Please do something to save me.

Since that email, I've tried to email him a few times, but as of last week, I haven't heard anything from him. I don't know if he's safe or not.

INSKEEP: After our interview, the interpreter finally wrote and said he's laying low because people have been killed in his neighborhood. We called the top U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan. Ambassador Ross Wilson came on the line from the embassy in Kabul, and we told him something that Major Amaya had said.

This U.S. veteran said to us that he felt that leaving behind an interpreter who had served the U.S. in combat was the same as leaving behind a U.S. member of the military. Do you see it that way?

ROSS WILSON: I can certainly understand how he would feel that way, and I've had associations with people in my course on my diplomatic career who similarly have provided exemplary service. And it's for exactly that reason those of us who were here feel a deep moral obligation to do everything we can.

INSKEEP: He says the State Department faces some obstacles. A law passed by Congress does allow thousands of Afghans potential access to the United States under what are called special immigrant visas. But that law includes strict requirements for Afghans to collect documents that may be hard to find in a war zone.

WILSON: I'm aware that many of the Afghan applicants have trouble figuring out who to contact to get a letter confirming that they worked for the U.S. government or for an agency in a given period of time. They have difficulty tracking down the people who were their supervisors. Those are two onerous pieces. We don't have a lot of leeway. The criteria are pretty clearly spelled out in U.S. law and in U.S. regulation. The purpose is to protect the United States against people who shouldn't be admitted to our country.

INSKEEP: The U.S. Embassy stopped visa interviews last year because of the pandemic. This spring, interviews resumed, and the U.S. processed the applications of 1,600 cases.

WILSON: Each case includes a principal applicant and a family. So we've moved a ton of people.

INSKEEP: But this week, a fresh outbreak of COVID at the embassy stopped the visa interviews again. U.S. officials are hoping the security situation does not immediately decline and that there is time to bring out more former U.S. employees. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said, if necessary, the U.S. can consider bringing them out as refugees. Those who must wait for now include Khan, the employee of a U.S. defense contractor. Again, we've distorted and masked his voice in order to protect him. He told us he recently received a threat at his home.

KHAN: During the night...

ARABLOUEI: "During the night, they left a death threat hanging on my front door. It said that me and my family would not be left alive because we supported the U.S. forces and we're traitors. And then on the other gate to my house, they wired a hand grenade to the door that was set to explode if I opened the door from the inside. But, fortunately, we were not harmed."

INSKEEP: Does this happen to a lot of Afghans who work for the United States government?

KHAN: Yes, to many. It's happening daily in Afghanistan...

ARABLOUEI: "Yes, to many. It's happening daily in Afghanistan. Many people have been killed. In January, my brother-in-law was killed by the Taliban. He worked in the same office as me. We worked on the same project in the same office for the U.S. Department of Defense. He was going to work with his 10-year-old son when he was killed. His son was hiding in the car and wasn't harmed. But if he was not hidden, he also would have been killed."

INSKEEP: How is his son doing?

KHAN: For a few weeks...

ARABLOUEI: "For weeks, his son was not OK. He was sick, and his mother said that during the night, he would yell during his sleep. He would yell about the things that happened to his father."

INSKEEP: Khan is trying to get out while he can. He has a lawyer who says he applied for a U.S. visa in 2018. Almost three years later in early 2021, Khan received approval from the U.S. Embassy, which is the first of many steps with more to come.

How do you and your wife manage your security now?

KHAN: During the night...

ARABLOUEI: "During the night, I go up on the roof of my home and watch for enemies who might place IEDs or mines on my doors. I make sure no one enters my home. And when I sleep during the day, my wife watches from the roof. We are watching and searching for enemies not to kill us."

INSKEEP: As we're speaking, it is in the evening in Afghanistan, I believe. Does your turn come soon to go up onto the roof and stand watch?

KHAN: Yes...

ARABLOUEI: "Yes. Currently, my wife is up on the roof right now. And I'm here talking to you. When our interview is finished, I'll go back up there."

(SOUNDBITE OF NILS FRAHM'S "SAYS")

INSKEEP: For his safety, we're calling him Khan. The United States government knows his name and will in time decide his fate.

(SOUNDBITE OF NILS FRAHM'S "SAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.