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Afghan allies ‘begging’ for their lives, face Taliban attacks amid US withdrawal

During the 20-year American war in Afghanistan, thousands of locals worked for, and with, the United States. As the U.S. departs, many of them are left in profound danger. Earlier this year, Special Correspondent Jane Ferguson profiled a decorated Afghan helicopter pilot whose life was at risk. She returns with updates on his story, and a look at the larger plight of visa-seeking Afghans like him.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The United States will soon be leaving Afghanistan. Its scheduled September troop withdrawal could be complete as soon as next month.

    During 20 years of American fighting, thousands of Afghans have worked for and with the United States. Now, as the U.S. departs, many of those Afghans are in profound danger.

    Earlier this year, special correspondent Jane Ferguson introduced us to a decorated Afghan helicopter pilot whose life was in danger. Now she has an update on his story and a look at the larger plight of those fighting not to be left behind.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    They look like any other family arriving into New York's Kennedy Airport, but they are not. They have escaped a hellish threat to their lives. And this precious moment has taken months of dangerous, exhausting waiting and hoping and praying.

  • Naiem Asadi, Afghan Pilot:

    At this moment I am very happy. I am very happy. Today is the day that I am going to start a new life. So everything is very, very good for us.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    We first met Major Naiem Asadi in his native Afghanistan in January. He was living in hiding in Kabul, marked for death by the Taliban, and threatened with arrest by the Afghan government for trying to leave the country for America while in the military.

    Asadi was granted a rare specialist humanitarian visa last fall after his career as a helicopter pilot drew public attention to his proficiency at killing Taliban fighters and his endeavors to save downed American pilots.

    His visa was canceled by the Pentagon in November, leaving him and his family in limbo for six months. American human rights lawyer Kimberly Motley took on his case and got the visa reinstated.

  • Woman:

    Welcome to America.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    She arrived with Naiem and his wife and 5-year-old daughter, having traveled to Kabul to escort them to the U.S., and make sure they made it through immigration

  • Naiem Asadi:

    Even though she understands that the security situation is not good in Afghanistan, so she…

  • Jane Ferguson:

    She came anyway.

  • Naiem Asadi:

    Yes, she took that risk and she came to Afghanistan, and she took us out from Afghanistan safely.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Motley lived in Afghanistan for years, often working pro bono for women who needed legal representation. On this trip back, she was struck by the fear gripping the capital as American troops rushed to leave.

  • Kimberly Motley, Human Rights Attorney:

    Everyone is terrified, Afghans, many Americans and foreigners.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    From a legal standpoint, is it unrealistic to get visas processed in time before American leaves?

  • Kimberly Motley:

    I think it's irresponsible and unrealistic, yes.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    How many lawyers will it take to get people here?

  • Kimberly Motley:

    It's going to take a lot of lawyers.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Few have the opportunity Asadi had or the legal support. Other Afghans who helped U.S. forces as interpreters have been waiting for years to be issued visas to the U.S. under the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, program set up in 2006 to help recruit interpreters to work with U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    But those visas have been plagued with endless delays and bureaucracy, reducing to a trickle the lucky ones who make it through. Right now, there are 18,000 applications backlogged, not including family members. With President Biden's decision to withdraw all American forces from the country completely, those applicants risk being left behind.

    The Taliban is on the doorstep of Kabul, and they have anyone who helped or worked with the U.S. well within their sights.

    The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan is happening so rapidly, the situation for the Afghans left behind still waiting for visas, is becoming a life-and-death emergency. The campaign here in Washington, D.C., to get them out of there before the Taliban can get to them is intensifying.

    A bipartisan group of lawmakers has been pushing for years to get more SIVs issued, and faster. Senator Jeanne Shaheen is a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relation Committee. She worked closely with the late Senator John McCain on the issue and is leading urgent efforts now

  • Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH):

    It's the right thing to do. It's the moral thing to do. And it's in America's interests long term.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The 18,000 applicants waiting in line for U.S. visas was the number before the full American withdrawal was announced.

  • Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:

    We assume that number will go up, and that doesn't include families. So, we're looking. We had a meeting, a bipartisan meeting — this is an issue that Republicans and Democrats have worked together on — with the White House a couple of weeks ago to talk about things that we could do that may need to be changed in the law to expedite those visa applications.

    And so we are working on that. And we hope to have some legislation that can move very quickly.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Beyond the moral argument to take care of those who took care of Americans on the battlefield is the wider strategic case to be made. Can the American military be seen abandoning its partners so publicly?

  • Sen. Jeanne Shaheen:

    I think it says to our allies and those people who we want to work with us, can you trust the United States? It raises that question in their minds.

    I am old enough to remember when we pulled out of Vietnam and the helicopters taking off with Vietnamese who had helped us holding on, because they knew what was going to happen to them, and then, of course, the migration from all of those who had helped Americans in Vietnam and what happened. So, I don't want to see that again in Afghanistan.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The shadow of Vietnam has been hanging over the war in Afghanistan for years. Few parallels are as stark as the impossible task of getting out without abandoning local partners to an advancing enemy.

    In 1975, although many were left behind, over 100,000 Vietnamese who had worked with America were evacuated to the American island of Guam in the Western Pacific. Once there, and safe, they were housed in camps until their visas were processed and they could settle in the U.S.

    That's exactly what a number of lawmakers are now pushing for, saying the plan to process the Afghan visas at the embassy in Kabul will never be fast enough, and the interpreters and their families need to be immediately evacuated to a safe place for processing, even suggesting Guam as the place to do it.

    On June 4, a bipartisan group of congress men and women wrote a letter to the White House, stating: "The current SIV process will not work. It is clear that the process will not be rectified in time to help the over 18,000 applicants who need visas before our withdrawal. Our bipartisan working group has concluded that we must evacuate our Afghan friends and allies immediately."

    Forty-six years ago, President Ford formed an interagency task force to handle the mass evacuations, and allocated $300 million to fund the efforts. Today, the Pentagon has drawn up plans for the evacuation of Afghan interpreters and their families. But it needs the approval from President Biden to act on them.

  • Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX):

    If we abandon them, we are signing their death warrants.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Last week, in a tense exchange with Texas Republican Congressman Mike McCaul, Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not answer questions about whether President Biden would give the nod to an evacuation, insisting instead that there is time to process the visas inside Afghanistan.

    Tony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State: The embassy's staying. Our programs are staying. We're working to make sure that other partners stay. We're building all of that up. So, I wouldn't necessary equate the departure of our forces in July, August, or by early September with some kind of immediate deterioration in the situation.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Others strongly disagree. Interpreters and service members in Afghanistan right now are being targeted and killed by the Taliban. Afghans already here argue there is no time.

  • Janis Shinwari, No One Left Behind:

    If they do it, they should do it right now. If they want to start the evacuation, it's the time right now to do it. If you want to start speeding up the process, do it right now. Do not wait until tomorrow.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Janis Shinwari was a translator working with American forces in Afghanistan before he moved here. He co-founded No One Left Behind, an organization that helps Afghans get on their feet when they arrive here.

    These days he fields desperate calls for help from interpreters living in hiding waiting for visas they fear won't come.

  • Janis Shinwari:

    The messages they send me, they are asking for their lives .They are begging for their lives. They say, please help us.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    We took a similar call while reporting this story. One former interpreter now hiding in Kabul says he was injured while working with U.S. troops in Kandahar.

  • Man:

    It's too dangerous for me and for my family. If someone knows that I worked for USA several years and also got wounded for USA, they will kill me.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    With the Taliban advancing across the country and assassinating its enemies in Afghan cities, the government in Kabul has shown it is incapable of keeping citizens safe.

  • Janis Shinwari:

    They're getting stronger. And they have a lot of sources now everywhere.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Spies.

  • Janis Shinwari:

    Yes, spies. And they have spies in our army, the police, in the, like, civilian, everywhere. And, yes, you cannot hide if you worked for Americans, or that's why they're targeting those people in Kabul.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Almost as soon as this war began, how to get out of it became a massive foreign policy challenge. The possible collapse of the Afghan government, a Taliban victory, and the human cost of abandoning America's allies there have outlasted three administrations.

    The Biden White House faces growing pressure to prove it won't oversee a withdrawal marked by a growing sense of betrayal.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Washington.

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