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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

As U.S. troops leave Afghanistan and Biden promises to evacuate thousands of Afghans, one Spokane man worries about loved ones left behind

Kazim, an immigrant from Afghanistan, poses for a photo on June 24 at his karate dojo in Spokane. Kazim's brother fled Afghanistan for Washington in August, but he's worried about other family members in the country as the Taliban takes over.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – On Friday morning, President Joe Biden held an event at the White House to tout a strong monthly jobs report and start the Fourth of July weekend on a high note, but reporters asked about something he was less eager to talk about.

Earlier that day, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry confirmed the last American forces had left Bagram Airfield, the epicenter of a U.S. military presence that began with a narrow goal of toppling the country’s Taliban regime before evolving into a fitful experiment in nation-building with mixed results.

After a reporter asked him about reports of the Taliban swiftly recapturing territory as the U.S.-led coalition withdraws, Biden’s tone reflected the policy of an administration that wants to move on from a war it has decided is unwinnable.

“Look, we were in that war for 20 years,” the president said wearily, before offering a tepid endorsement of the Afghan government’s ability to stand up to a resurgent Taliban. When reporters tried to ask follow-up questions, Biden interrupted them.

“I want to talk about happy things, man,” the president said. “I’m not going to answer any more questions on Afghanistan. Look, it’s the Fourth of July.”

But as the U.S. government tries to end its two-decade entanglement in the Central Asian nation, not everyone can move on so easily.

Part of the complicated legacy the war leaves behind are more than 60,000 Afghans who have moved to the United States through a program Congress created in 2009 to provide Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, to those who aided U.S. operations, along with their immediate families.

One of them is Kazim, who came to Spokane with his wife in 2014 after working for six years as an interpreter for a U.S. defense contractor in Afghanistan. The 36-year-old asked to be identified only by his first name to protect his parents and siblings who still live in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and could face retaliation from the Taliban for his ties to the United States.

“Right now, it’s absolutely insane,” Kazim said. “If anyone realizes you were working with the U.S. government, they will kill you or kidnap your family members and ask for money.”

To make matters worse, his youngest brother now works for the U.S. government and has been waiting for his own SIV approval for close to three years, Kazim said.

The rigorous vetting process takes an average of nearly three years and has led to a backlog of roughly 18,000 applications. While the U.S. government doesn’t track how many Afghans have been killed while waiting for an SIV approval, the advocacy group No One Left Behind has cataloged more than 300 such cases.

Amid mounting bipartisan pressure from Congress, advocacy groups and military veterans who worked alongside Afghan interpreters, the Biden administration made a pivotal announcement on June 24: It plans to evacuate thousands of SIV applicants to another country while their applications are processed.

“It’s the best possible decision under the circumstances,” said Ryan Crocker, a Spokane Valley native who reopened the U.S. embassy in Kabul in 2002 and returned to serve as ambassador from 2011 to 2012. “Given the Taliban gains on the ground and our accelerating withdrawal, there were no other choices.”

Promised evacuation raises more questions than answers

In April, Biden announced U.S. forces would withdraw from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, a symbolic deadline that falls exactly 20 years after the terror attacks al-Qaida launched from its safe haven in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, prompting the U.S.-led invasion weeks later.

The administration now says it will leave about 650 troops in the country to guard its embassy, but the withdrawal of all other U.S. forces is ahead of schedule and will be completed by late August, the Pentagon confirmed Friday.

While Turkish forces will guard the Kabul airport, a recent U.S. intelligence assessment concluded the Afghan government could fall to the Taliban within six months of the withdrawal, the Wall Street Journal reported June 23.

That outlook has raised fears the United States will break the promise it made to protect the Afghans who put themselves in the line of fire – often literally – as interpreters, drivers and in other roles that qualify them for the SIV program, which requires at least two years of documented service to the U.S. government.

“The SIV program was never intended, and has never functioned, as a program capable of moving large numbers of people in short order,” said Adam Bates, policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project, a nonprofit that provides legal aid to SIV applicants. “That’s one of the reasons that we’ve been calling for an evacuation.”

The planned evacuation has so far raised more questions than answers and underscores how difficult it will be for the United States to sever the deep ties forged between Americans and Afghans over the past two decades.

The White House has said it has identified “a group” of Afghans to relocate, but has declined to say how many people will qualify or how, when or where they will be moved.

On Friday, Bloomberg News reported the administration had asked three other Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – to take in about 9,000 SIV applicants, roughly half of those who have begun the application process. That number could rise to upwards of 50,000 when including the applicants’ spouses and unmarried children.

Another option is airlifting the former employees and their families to Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific. While that would be a mammoth logistical undertaking, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. At the end of the Vietnam War, the United States evacuated some 130,000 Vietnamese refugees and allies to Guam in 1975, where they were screened before moving to the U.S. mainland by the end of that year.

The National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group, has estimated it would take seven flights per day to complete the evacuation between July 4 and Sept. 11, although there has been no indication the evacuation will start by Independence Day and the administration has said it will end by late August.

“If there is going to be an evacuation – and there must be – the window is very quickly closing on that, in terms of the U.S. even having the logistical ability to move people,” Bates said. “This is something that has to happen now.”

“The U.S. has been in Afghanistan for 20 years,” he added, “and has had 20 years to anticipate the potential humanitarian fallout of a U.S. withdrawal, so the fact that we’re days or weeks from the U.S. withdrawal and we still have all these questions is unconscionable.”

The problems an evacuation won’t solve

Kazim comes from a family of martial artists. The eldest son, he’s practiced karate since he was 5 years old and still spends two hours every day training at his dojo, something that helped him adjust to life in Spokane.

The morning after his wedding 10 years ago, Kazim remembers, he turned to his wife and said, “Honey, I’m sorry, but I have to go to the Asian championships.”

Back in Afghanistan, his middle brother is a judo trainer and his older sister practices taekwondo, something that would have been impossible for a woman under the Taliban regime. The family fled the country after the Islamist militant group took power in 1996.

Kazim’s family returned to Afghanistan from neighboring Iran after U.S. and allied forces toppled the Taliban, and a few years after high school he got a job with DynCorp, an American military contractor that worked closely with U.S. forces.

Years later, Kazim’s brother followed in his footsteps and started working for the U.S. government, but the family’s youngest has a different sport of choice.

“He’s not really a martial arts person,” Kazim said of his brother. “He’s like, ‘I don’t want to kick people, I want to just do chess.’ ”

In their weekly conversations, Kazim’s brother tells him about all the steps he takes to make sure no one knows he works for the Americans. While Kazim used to wear a suit around a relatively safe Kabul a decade ago, his brother has grown out his beard and swaps his office clothes for drab attire to avoid suspicion on his commute.

“If somebody knows that my brother is still working with the U.S. government, they’re going to hurt my family for sure,” Kazim said. “Without any doubt.”

But when Kazim asked his brother if he would take part in the evacuation, the younger man scoffed at the idea.

One problem with the evacuation plan, Kazim said, is that SIV applicants are often the main breadwinners not only for their immediate families but also their parents. Going to a refugee camp for an unknown length of time would force his brother to give up the two jobs their parents rely on, along with the money Kazim sends home each month.

“Over there, it’s an absolutely different culture,” Kazim said. “It’s our responsibility to take care of our parents. I’m happy that I’m here. I’m glad that I’m able to achieve my goals, but I’m thinking about my parents as well.”

Another problem is that returning to Afghanistan – either by choice or after an SIV application is rejected – would put a target on an evacuee’s back. Even Afghans who leave the country temporarily for different reasons, Kazim worries, will be suspected of working with the U.S. government and face retaliation.

The White House did not respond when asked whether evacuees will be allowed to earn money while their visas are processed and what will happen to those who don’t complete the application process. A Pentagon spokesperson referred the same questions to the State Department, which also did not respond.

Crocker said the evacuation also raises tough logistical questions, including how to maintain security on roads to the airport, and could strike a blow to the morale of Afghans left behind.

“The images of thousands of interpreters being flown away is going to have a terrible impact on the Afghan people, and probably on the Afghan forces,” he said. “Under the circumstances, it’s the best available option, but it’s going to be a very steep climb to get it done safely.”

Kazim, now a U.S. citizen, has petitioned for his parents to come to Spokane as refugees, but the Biden administration’s efforts to restore the Refugee Resettlement Program could take months or years after former President Donald Trump cut refugee admissions to a historic low.

“For those folks, whether they’re from Afghanistan or elsewhere, who don’t qualify for SIVs, we need to continue to rebuild our resettlement program so that the most vulnerable and urgent cases really do have the option of going somewhere safe,” said Mark Finney, director of the Spokane office of World Relief, a Christian organization that helped Kazim and his wife when they arrived in 2014.

Bates said the Biden administration has other tools to help vulnerable Afghans who don’t fit the narrow parameters of the SIV program, including asking the United Nations refugee organization to refer more Afghans to the United States as a priority group.

Kazim also hopes his brother can complete the SIV process from Kabul and join him in the United States, but he’s saddened by the idea that Afghans can only have peace by fleeing their homeland.

“From my perspective, I have the best life ever here,” he said. “But if my country came up with good security, with peace, I would be the first person going back to be with my family.”

As Americans grapple with the complicated legacy of the nation’s longest war, Kazim said he has one message for the U.S. government: “If you want to help your employees, think about their parents as well.”

“The U.S. did a great job bringing interpreters to the United States, but they really don’t care about your parents, your brothers, your sisters,” he said. “They’re going to get killed because of me. They’re going to get hurt because of me, because I’m part of their family, and that’s not fair.”