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VP Saleh: Afghan people are tired of war but not ready to sell their souls
Thousands of Afghans who worked with the U.S. military are trying to get visas promised to them when they took the jobs. Naiem Asadi was one of Afghanistan’s most celebrated military helicopter pilots who was trained by Americans to fight. But now, abandoned by the U.S., hunted by the Taliban, and threatened by his own government, he faces new dangers. Jane Ferguson and Emily Kassie report.
Returning now to Afghanistan and our series on the longest war.
Thousands of Afghans who worked with or for the U.S. face threats, even death for their service.
Special correspondent Jane Ferguson and producer/cinematographer Emily Kassie bring us the story of one pilot who found that American pledges to help him and his family proved nearly worthless.
Naiem Asadi had his dream job. As one of Afghanistan's most celebrated military helicopter pilots, he was part of an elite club of aviators, trained by Americans.
Naiem Asadi (through translator):
As a soldier, as a fighter, it is our responsibility and our job to risk our lives to protect someone else's.
Now his life is in danger in ways he had never planned for, abandoned by America, hunted by the Taliban, and threatened with jail by his own government.
Initially when I started and was going to the battles, I was scared, but, after a few missions, I got used to it. It became as normal to me as it is for any other pilots in the world fighting for the freedom of their country.
In many ways, he was the image of America's efforts to build the Afghan military's skills.
After I graduated in 2013, I became an instructor to the other pilots for two years.
Then, in 2015, the Afghan government decided to arm our helicopters and send us to the battlefields. Within a couple of months, we had covered nearly all the provinces. We had a very good relationship with the Americans. We got along well. Honestly, everything I have learned and everything I have today was from Americans. I will never forget this.
Asadi's work, featured here in a Department of Defense video, took him all over the country, protecting Afghan and American soldiers. In 2018, when there was a serious threat in the capital, he was ready.
I was flying on that day, and on the radio I heard there were mortar attacks on the presidential palace and diplomatic area, and they told me to find the location of the attackers.
I searched for them, and I located them, and then we engaged with them and hit them. After this mission, I was approached by my American colleagues. And they said they wanted to interview me.
NATO's media team put together this video praising Asadi's actions that day. The video was picked up by local media in Afghanistan too. That's when his life changed.
The threats started. A few months later, my father received a call from the Taliban. They threatened him and said: "We know your son is a military pilot. You should hand him over to us."
Once he told his American colleagues, they applied for a special visa to the U.S. Finally, last October, he got the call that he and his wife and 4-year-old daughter should pack their bags and drive to a U.S. base, bound for a new life in America.
In the car on the way, he got a call he couldn't believe: "With no explanation, U.S. immigration had just canceled his visa."
Kimberly Motley is a human rights lawyer representing Asadi.
I can't point to exactly why Asadi was, frankly, screwed in the way he was by the U.S. government.
However, I do know that it's unfair, patently unfair, and, frankly, immoral, in my opinion.
Because they gave him no explanation.
Immediately afterwards, still in the car, he got another call, this time from the Afghan military.
They said: "We know you are leaving. You need to come to us and explain."
I was confident, if I went there, they would have put me in jail.
Asadi says his visa to the U.S. had become a politically and diplomatically sensitive issue, with the Afghan government angry a pilot currently serving in their military could be granted a visa to move to the U.S. He and his family had no choice but to seek refuge in the American base.
And so they lived there for several weeks, under the protection of the U.S. military. And for whatever reason, with no explanation, the U.S. Pentagon said — decided to contact the U.S. immigration and said, we are no long going to sponsor this visa.
That was the most painful moment for me, when they told me to leave the base. They told me, go back to Kabul and report back to my work. I never would have thought the U.S. government would make a promise and then break it. It was very painful.
Since then, he and his family have been living in hiding, terrified that either the Taliban or the Afghan government will find them.
Asadi had qualified for Pentagon sponsorship of the rare humanitarian parole visa. This was not simply because he was under such threat from the Taliban, but because, according to him and his lawyer, he had saved American lives, including rescuing at least one crashed and stranded U.S. pilot in Baghlan province last year.
I have saved the lives of many Afghan soldiers who were fighting. On that day, I acted quickly. I felt very lucky that I was able to participate in a mission where I could save the life of an American pilot.
Because of his work, and the relationships he has built, American service members agreed to help him and his family when they arrive.
I have over 10 ex-military, current military members that are willing to sponsor him in America. They recognize his bravery.
How unique is that?
I have never had a case like that.
Although Asadi's case, like his career, is unique, there are thousands of Afghans who worked with the U.S. military waiting, trying to get visas promised to them when they took the jobs years ago; 17,000 Afghan translators alone are stuck in limbo, as visas ground to a halt in recent years.
And they are all targets. The translator visas are officially called Special Immigration Visas, or SIVs. Years of bureaucracy and tough immigration policies have stalled the process.
Last week, the Biden administration issued an executive order on immigration policy and refugee acceptance into the U.S., saying: "The Special Immigrant Visa programs for Iraqi and Afghan allies provide humanitarian protection to nationals of Iraq and Afghanistan experiencing an ongoing, serious threat because they provided faithful and valuable service to the United States, including its troops serving in those countries. The federal government should ensure that these important programs are administered without undue delay."
However quickly these visas can now be made a reality, it will come too late for some. In the months since Asadi was kicked off the U.S. base and has been in hiding, several other Afghan pilots have been targeted and killed by the Taliban. And it's not known how many former translators have been killed.
The Afghan government has argued that U.S. visas for service members could demoralize the Afghan forces and encourage more to leave the country.
I think, frankly, they are mad at him for wanting to come to America and wanting — having the audacity to want his family to live under safe — in safety.
And, unfortunately, the Afghan government, they cannot protect him. And they know that. They are not saying: Come back. We will protect you. They are saying: If you don't come back, we will put you in prison.
Well, it's like he is in a lose-lose situation. Either he goes back. Either the Afghan government wants to arrest him or the Taliban wants to kill him. So, what is he supposed to do? He's just not safe anywhere.
Safety is no longer a possibility for Asadi and his family.
If you had one message for Joe Biden, what would you say to him?
I would explain, and I would urge to him to give me a visa and to allow me to go to live beside the honorable people of the United States.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Kabul, Afghanistan
Well, we certainly hope this story has a good ending. And I know Jane will continue to follow it.
Watch the Full Episode
Jane is a New York-based special correspondent for the NewsHour, reporting on and from across the Middle East, Africa and beyond. She was previously based in Beirut. Reporting highlights include the lead up to and aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, front-line dispatches from the war against ISIS in Iraq, an up-close look at Houthi-controlled Yemen, and reports on the war and famine in South Sudan. Areas of particular interest are the ongoing cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, Islamist groups around the world, and US foreign policy.
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