U.S. allies in Afghanistan fear for their lives under Taliban rule

Hundreds of thousands of Afghans worked with the U.S. government and military, but most still remain in Afghanistan at risk of being persecuted by the Taliban. The U.S says many are trying to obtain special U.S. immigrant visas. Nick Schifrin spoke with a former translator for the U.S. military now in hiding and Matt Zeller, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and co-founder of No One Left Behind.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, we return to the anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

    The Biden administration says that it has accelerated efforts to try and save Afghan interpreters, but many remain left behind.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For two decades, hundreds of thousands of Afghans worked with the U.S. government and military. Many remain in Afghanistan, at risk of being persecuted by the Taliban.

    They're eligible for Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, if they worked by or on behalf of the U.S. for at least one year and face ongoing serious threats. The U.S. says 17,000 Afghans have submitted their applications, but more than 74,000 are working their way through the process. The State Department and advocacy groups say, including family members, the number is likely four times that.

    In a moment, I will speak to a veteran leading one of those advocacy groups, but first the story of a former translator trapped in Afghanistan one year on.

    Before the fall, before the Taliban came in, he begged to come out. He and other interpreters for the U.S. military protested in Kabul in June 2021. They wanted the U.S. to fulfill its promise to evacuate Afghans who'd served alongside U.S. troops. But many were left behind. One day after the Taliban takeover, he burned the evidence of his service and wrote on Twitter: "Breathing my last days of life."

  • Interpreter:

    Some of those interpreters made it to the airport. I tried, too. I went there, but it was too late.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We spoke to him this week from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan, and are keeping him anonymous.

    Back in 2011, he joined the U.S. Army, and interpreted for platoon commanders in two different districts of Kandahar in Southern Afghanistan, the birthplace of the Taliban.

  • Interpreter:

    It was one of the most dangerous because of the IEDs. On my first mission, when I went with the U.S. forces, the vehicle I was in was hit with an IED. It was something that I can never forget. It was a mental shock, and it still is with me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What kind of relationships did you develop with the soldiers that you worked alongside?

  • Interpreter:

    The interpreter was very crucial for everyone, because if an interpreter made a mistake, he could risk the whole platoon, the whole team.

    I was very friendly with the platoon leaders which I worked with, and they were friendly with me. So, we used to be like brothers.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He says he applied for an SIV, but was initially rejected after his commander, who recommended him, developed PTSD and couldn't cope with helping him.

    That left him vulnerable one year ago, when tens of thousands of Afghans rushed to the Kabul Airport. When he didn't make it past the gate, he knew he and his family would be at risk. The Taliban had long ago made that clear.

    And tell me, what happened to your father?

  • Interpreter:

    They came inside. They beat my father and also myself. And they're like: "Oh, you work against us. You work with international troops, with the U.S. forces. So you are a traitor to the country. You are non-Muslim."

    When we tried escaping, they started shooting. I was ahead of my father, and, unfortunately, one of the bullets hit my father. I turned back. I heard him yelling, the pain from the bullet. He asked me to not return, just to escape. I wish I was there, instead of him, but they took his life because of me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you think that there's still a risk today to you and your family?

  • Interpreter:

    The threat is 100 percent. If they find out about me, if they know about me and my family, they will punish me, torture me, and finally kill me for my support to the U.S. government.

    So my message is clear. It's still time to save those who are left behind before it's too late.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I am joined by Matt Zeller, the co-founder of No One Left Behind. He served in Ghazni Province as a soldier, and is currently a major in the U.S. Army Reserve. He is also a former CIA officer and ran for Congress in New York as a Democrat.

    Matt Zeller, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    We just heard this man's story. We spoke to a half-dozen other interpreters who are still in Afghanistan, one of whom switches his house every day, for fear of safety.

    As you understand it, what is the threat that these people face?

  • Matt Zeller, Co-Founder, No One Left Behind:

    Simply put, they're going to be murdered.

    The Taliban was quite clear at Doha. They were asked, is there any room for reconciliation with those who currently work for the Afghan Islamic Republic's government? And they were said, yes. Anybody who works for the Islamic Republic government, we have no problem with them.

    The folks we have an issue with are the interpreters, those who worked alongside the American forces. They declared them to be something called apostates, which, in their perverted view of Islam, means they have to be killed. There's a commandment from God that requires them to do it.

    And the evidence seems to suggest that, thus far, they're being remarkably successful at that. The Association of Wartime Allies and the Iraq and Afghan Veterans of America, along with Veterans for American Ideals, spent the last couple of weeks polling the left behind Afghan population, along with the veterans who are involved in trying to help Afghans get out, particularly over the last year.

    And what they learned was quite shocking. First off, they learned that 41 percent of the veterans involved now report some type of moral injury. Well, why are they reporting moral injury? They're reporting moral injury because the Afghans that they're attempting to assist are still not making it to the United States, are still in danger, are still being persecuted, and some 40.9 percent of those Afghans in the last year have gone dark.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I asked the U.S. government, multiple officials, about that idea that so many Afghans have gone dark, perhaps lost their lives. And they — and officials telling me that that number seems awfully high to them.

  • Matt Zeller:

    Well, the American government was telling us for years that our SIV estimates were wildly inaccurate.

    And then, over the last couple of months, they issued a number of mea culpas. And they said, as it turns out, Kim Staffieri and her team at the Association of Wartime Allies have been on track all along, that there are, in fact, some 78,000 SIV potential applicants that were waiting as of the 15th of August last year for evacuation, that those vast majority of them never made it onto the airplanes, that they remain left behind.

    They now have finally copped to that there should be some 300,000 SIV-eligible people who remain left behind.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Including families, right.

  • Matt Zeller:

    Including family members, correct.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Is the U.S. today doing enough to try and get them out?

  • Matt Zeller:

    No.

    Simply put, the SIV program is not going to save these people. At the current rate of processing visas, it's going to take the government 18 years to get through the backlog. There's an ongoing famine. Even if the Taliban aren't killing these people as efficiently as I believe they are to be, the ongoing food insecurity and medical insecurity in Afghanistan is going to get to these people eventually.

    So there's only one solution left. I have now seen it. I know what it's called. It's called the Uniting for Ukraine program. It works. We have helped welcome over 100,000 Ukrainians since April of this year to this country. And my heart, I'm all for it. I think that's great.

    But if we can do it for Ukrainians, why can't we do it for our nation's longest wartime ally? And so this is where only the president of the United States can solve this. He has the authority to execute it tonight, right now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    U.S. officials say there's some context to what they're dealing with. And that is the situation that they inherited from the previous administration.

    Let's take a listen to Ned Price, State Department spokesman.

  • Ned Price, State Department Spokesman:

    When this administration came into office in January of 2021, not a single interview had been conducted in Kabul for an SIV applicant since March of the preceding year, March of 2020.

    At least part of that was a reflection of the way in which the previous administration had not maintained this program, how it had been allowed to atrophy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Allowed to atrophy. Does he have a point?

  • Matt Zeller:

    The point that they should be concerned with is this.

    We left behind the vast majority of the people that we were attempting to get out, and they're going to die. Veterans are hurting as a result of that. I know only one way to address moral injury. It's through acts of service. It's through good work. It's through helping these people get to safety and salvation.

    The only way that these people are going to survive at this point is a Uniting for Afghanistan program. There is no other option. I don't know what it's going to take to convince this president, however, to get involved. He seems to be the one person that doesn't seem to understand that he can actually solve this, that it takes his personal investment.

    He's the great healer in chief, right? Veterans are hurting. He could help us heal by helping these people get home.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In just a few seconds left, you mentioned this.

    Not only is it the threat from the Taliban, but it's also a humanitarian crisis across the country. Very quickly, how more difficult is it, given that crisis today?

  • Matt Zeller:

    It's nearly impossible.

    Afghan parents are at the point where they're selling their children to be able to feed their other children. That's hell on earth. We shouldn't have ever abandoned these people to that. We owe them to get them to safety and salvation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Matt Zeller, thank you very much.

  • Mat Zeller:

    Thanks for having me.

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