Opinion: The worst Catch-22 of all for Afghans who helped Americans
"The plane that left the Kabul airport on Thursday, with passengers including dozens of U.S. citizens and Afghan dual nationals, may have stirred a slight hope in many thousands of Afghans who helped Americans in Afghanistan and were left behind. Perhaps eventually they, too, will be able to escape, and avoid the Taliban’s retribution.
But those hopeful Afghans would at least possess special immigrant visas, or SIVs, issued to those who worked directly for the Defense Department or U.S. Embassy. Their misery at being abandoned by the U.S. government may be exceeded only by those Afghans who also helped Americans but were employed by U.S. government contractors and cannot obtain the required paperwork to prove it.
I have been working for the past several weeks with a loose network of civilians and veterans helping Afghans who were America’s partners to get out of the country. I’ve encountered many bleak stories, but the bleakest of all — the worst Catch-22 of all — may be the one faced by an Afghan who worked in a U.S. government contractor program that no longer exists.
I’ll use just his surname’s initial, K., because he fears for his life if the Taliban discover that he worked for Americans. He is in hiding with his wife and five children. The youngest is 3 years old.
On Aug. 2, the State Department announced a U.S. Refugee Admissions Program Priority 2 designation, “in light of increased levels of Taliban violence.” The “opportunity to permanently resettle in the United States” was being offered “to many thousands of Afghans and their immediate family members who may be at risk due to their U.S. affiliation but who are not eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa.”
That was K. He worked from 2010 to 2014 for the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, or TFBSO, program originally run by the Defense Department, then by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.
He has ID badges, pay statements and other evidence of his employment. His jobs included “static security guard,” paying $322 a month. Certificates associated with his work, including one for successfully completing a course in “Basic Safety, Stoppage & Immediate Action Drills with the AK47 Kalashnikov,” once were proudly displayed in his family home.
He holds onto the documents — despite the danger they represent, amid reports of door-to-door searches by the Taliban — in the hope that they will somehow help him and his family escape.
The task force’s mandate in Afghanistan was to encourage foreign investment and expand private-sector employment. It’s impossible to say how many Afghans worked under the task force’s umbrella, but one government report lists nearly 100 contractors alone — the workers would have been in the thousands. A Rand Corp. study reported that the task force spent $825 million on its Afghanistan operations in 2010-2014. The program’s costs, amid charges of malfeasance, led to its shutdown in 2014.
As the Taliban closed in on Kabul last month, K. frantically tried to contact the U.S. government for help, with no luck. He emailed and called contractors he had worked for, also with no luck. When I became aware of his predicament, I too began contacting contractors.
One of them was the private security company Triple Canopy, owned by Constellis. I left several messages for HR. No response. I noted the name of K.’s supervisor on his termination letter — the person who would need to sign and submit the employment verification form the State Department requires — and found him on LinkedIn. He is no longer in Kabul and now works for a different security firm. My message to him about K. went unanswered.
Now imagine trying to do all this from hiding in Afghanistan, with your spouse and five children nearby, erratic Internet service and every international phone call a harrowing expense.
I reached out to a former TFBSO project supervisor I found through my Afghan contacts to see if he had any suggestions. He was plainly appalled at the plight of K. and his Afghan colleagues who worked for Americans. But he could offer no guidance, emailing: “I don't have any advice for others. The situation there turned from bad to worse very quickly, leaving very little time for planning.”
As hopeless as matters might seem even for SIV-qualified Afghans stranded by the U.S. departure, they at least can dream of a miracle. But even that faint hope is denied K. and other Afghans who also helped Americans but can’t meet the U.S. government’s onerous paperwork demand.
The State Department could remedy this anguishing matter by accepting other proof of employment, or by compelling USAID or former TFBSO contractors to do whatever it takes to issue the required verification to qualified applicants. The United States must act to protect these workers, and their families, who protected U.S. interests for all these years."