The Evacuation of Afghanistan Never Ended

The New Yorker

A year after the last U.S. military flights left, some Afghans who are vulnerable to retribution from the Taliban are being resettled in the U.S. But others are stuck in third-party countries, and many remain trapped in Afghanistan, at great risk.

Last month, Metra Mehran, an Afghan human-rights activist, faced a choice. Until last summer, she lived in Kabul, where she worked as a director of a U.S.-funded women’s-education program. But, in August of 2021, when the Taliban took power, she was forced to flee. Through friends from the Fulbright program at Texas A. & M., which she had attended from 2016 to 2018, Mehran secured a place for herself on a list of Afghans eligible for protection in the U.S. Her mother, father, and brother travelled on a Special Immigrant Visa, granted for her mother’s role as a civil engineer, designing and building bridges and roads for American projects. They were flown to a military base in Kuwait, then eventually brought to Falls Church, Virginia.

I met Mehran in the winter of 2021, through a network of volunteers engaged in evacuation efforts, and we’ve worked together to help Afghan women still in peril. Mehran thought that she would be able to continue that work. But recently the Taliban began to harass her colleagues still in Kabul. “Because I openly criticize the Taliban’s policies and continue to engage with women on the ground, some low-level guys were threatening them,” she told me. “They kept coming to their offices, harassing them with screenshots of my tweets and of me on TV.” She had to decide whether to leave her job or continue risking the safety of her colleagues; in the end, she quit. It stunned her that the Taliban were able to assert power from so far away. “It was painful to see that, even though I am here in the United States, the Taliban can control my freedom of speech,” she said.

Mehran, like thousands of others who tried to leave the country last August, had little desire to build a new life outside of Afghanistan, but, for her safety, she had little choice. The U.S. government set up a system to evacuate thousands of people who were vulnerable to retribution from the Taliban—activists and civil-society members, judges and prosecutors, and people who had worked with the U.S. military or American-backed projects. But the effort was quickly overwhelmed by the speed of events. (A White House spokesperson said that the Administration conducted “extensive contingency planning,” and that its evacuation efforts constituted “one of the largest airlifts in history.” A State Department spokesperson added, “We will be relentless in this effort as we stand by our Afghan allies and their families.”) Alongside formal government initiatives, ad-hoc collectives stepped up. Afghans, former American officials, journalists, aid workers, and others cobbled together charter flights to evacuate those in danger. (With friends and colleagues, I took part in one of hundreds of such efforts.) Thousands of Afghans escaped, but then, on August 30, 2021, the military left, the airport closed, and many more were left behind.

It has now been a year since the last U.S. military flight left Afghanistan. At the end of 2021, according to the United Nations, there were more than 2.7 million Afghan refugees registered worldwide. Since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, there have been no such reliable figures. “A year later, neither we nor the U.S.G. really knows in any comprehensive way where everyone ended up or how many there even are,” Mike Breen, the president and C.E.O. of Human Rights First, told me, referring to the United States government. “To this day, there appears to be no systemic solution for accounting for all these people and getting them somewhere safe and sustainable.”

Among the luckiest Afghans are roughly eighty-five thousand who made it to the U.S. Halima Amiri, a twenty-two-year-old belonging to the Hazara ethnic minority persecuted by the Taliban, was studying to be an engineer at a military academy before Kabul fell. She spent three months being shuttled between windowless safe houses in Afghanistan, before flying to the U.S. and being resettled in Duluth, Minnesota. She arrived in Duluth last February, with three other young Afghan women, wearing matching black puffy coats and combat boots they’d received at a U.S. base in New Jersey. They were greeted by a pastor and retired professors taking part in a pilot program that allowed private citizens to help resettle refugees. It was eight degrees outside, and the women had worried about the cold. They were also, as far as they knew, the only Afghans in a city of eighty-five thousand. But they had the support of Episcopal Migration Ministries, a resettlement agency, and also of a devoted group of volunteers, who took turns spending the night with the women in a retreat center when they first arrived.

When I spoke to Amiri, by phone this month, she was working in the kitchen of a Benedictine home for the elderly; one of the other women scooped cones at Love Creamery, a local ice-cream shop. They spent the summer intensively studying English, working, and sending money back to Afghanistan. “Our education has always been the most important factor,” Amiri told me recently. In September, she will start the fall semester at the College of St. Scholastica, studying computer science and health. But stories of their families suffering in Afghanistan, where the spectre of famine caused prices to spike, has made it difficult to focus on their new routines.

When Amiri, an accomplished amateur artist, first arrived, she sketched images of the girls left behind in the safe houses. “I’m only in touch with some,” Amiri told me. The safe houses had been disbanded; no one was leaving anytime soon, and the funding dried up. “Most are still living in hiding, on their own,” Amiri added. “They always tell me that I’m lucky that I’m not in their situation, and that makes me really sad.” Almost all those she knew of were still in Afghanistan, with only four making it over the border to Pakistan.

There are also an untold number of Afghans who made it out of the country but are stuck abroad. Breen, from Human Rights First, told me, “Thousands who’d hoped to find a pathway to the U.S. are in limbo in a kind of global safe-house archipelago all over the world.” Some are in Pakistan and others are in the United Arab Emirates, where thousands are stuck in a “humanitarian city”—a place sometimes described as an international no man’s land. Thousands are in Turkey and Greece. Most were transported out of Afghanistan with promises that they would eventually be resettled in the U.S., but, for various reasons, that hasn’t happened.

During the past year, Operation White Scarves, a volunteer effort led by women, has successfully evacuated more than a thousand female leaders from Afghanistan. Nasrin Oryakhil, a fifty-six-year-old gynecologist and the former minister of labor and social affairs, escaped this past August with only a small carry-on of possessions. “Because I’m not a corrupt minister, I don’t have any money,” she told me. She is currently living in Istanbul, waiting for the United States to process her application to enter the country. “I can’t accept that the United States is offering me no support at all,” she told me. In 2014, Michelle Obama awarded her the State Department’s International Women of Courage award. This year, Oryakhil found an online contact form for the Obamas and wrote to ask for her help. “She’s a very kind person,” she said, but “I never heard back.” In Turkey, Afghan refugees struggle to be able to work, and Oryakhil is unable to pay her rent. “Even though there are so many threats against me, I’m considering going back to Afghanistan to run my private clinic,” she said. “I might be tortured, but I have to support my daughters.”

Mursal Ayar, a twenty-eight-year-old freelance journalist who worked with CNN, among other outlets, was arrested at her home, in Kabul, in January. For two weeks, she was interrogated, locked in a toilet, and beaten with a steel pipe. “They beat you until you give them names,” she told me. In June, after she was released, she fled overland to a nearby country. No nation has yet offered her family asylum. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen to me,” she told me.

Some women are living in hiding, even abroad. “I am not safe here and I hope you don’t publish where I am,” Tamana Paryani, a well-known twenty-five-year-old activist wrote to me last week, by encrypted chat. In January, Paryani live-streamed the moment when the Taliban broke into her house to arrest her. “At the moment, my camera was my only weapon,” she told me. “It was my protest.” Paryani was recently awarded asylum in the U.S., but she’s deeply ambivalent about accepting it. “To be honest, I am not interested in going to America,” she wrote. “I don’t like to seek refuge in the same government who gave our land to the terrorists.”

Despite the chaos of the evacuation from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden has touted it as an “extraordinary success.” Many of the difficulties in processing refugees, the Administration has claimed, are the result of changes that the Trump Administration made to U.S. resettlement programs. “The United States fucked it up for sure last August, and there’s no giving anyone a pass on that,” Shawn VanDiver, who founded #AfghanEvac, which coördinates relocation efforts between the U.S. government and two hundred volunteer groups, told me. “But, man, I can’t imagine what this would’ve looked like under the previous Administration.”

Although a small number of individuals inside and outside the Biden Administration have committed themselves heroically to the effort, the situation remains a chaotic mess. Currently, there are a handful of legal pathways for Afghans who want to settle in the United States. “Not one is working like it should,” Becca Heller, the head of the International Refugee Assistance Project, a nonprofit organization that works on refugee policy, told me. One option is a Special Immigrant Visa, or S.I.V., designated for Afghans in danger because of their work with the United States. A report released this month by the nonprofit the Association of Wartime Allies estimated that a hundred and sixty thousand applicants eligible for S.I.V.s still await processing for their visas, and that the Administration has issued an average of only seven hundred and twenty-five such visas per month since September of last year. (The Administration claims that the number of “full applications,” or those that are ready for approval, is much lower, and amounts to seventeen thousand.) Even more distressing, according to a report co-authored by the Association of Wartime Allies and Mina’s List: only an estimated seven to ten per cent of S.I.V. primary applicants are women. Although they are also at risk, owing to their work, they often cannot meet the United States’s eligibility requirements.

A second pathway is through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, for people including journalists and other members of civil society, but advocates say that it is also too slow. A third option, humanitarian parole, permits only a temporary stay in the U.S., during which Afghans must apply for permanent protection. As of August, of the sixty-six thousand Afghans who’ve applied, a mere hundred and twenty-three have been approved, according to the investigative outlet Reveal. (An Administration official said that the Biden Administration is dissuading Afghans from applying to humanitarian parole because of its temporary nature, and encouraging them to apply through a pathway that offers durable status, such as S.I.V. or the Refugee Admissions Program. The official also noted that, upon taking office, the Administration “substantially increased” the number of staff processing S.I.V. applications, increasing the pace of S.I.V. arrivals in the U.S. nearly eightfold between January and July of 2021.)

Compare these numbers with those fleeing Ukraine, for whom the United States has created the highly successful Uniting for Ukraine program, known as U4U. Of more than ninety-seven thousand Ukrainians who’ve applied for humanitarian parole, more than sixty-eight thousand applications have now been approved. “It’s pretty clear at this point that the U.S.G. needs to face up to the situation and create a parole program for everyone who fled the Taliban based on the lesson learned via U4U,” Breen said. (An Administration official said that U4U was created after speaking with Ukrainians in refugee camps, who “overwhelmingly” said that they plan to return to Ukraine and only seek temporary refuge in the United States.) These policy changes would begin with the passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act, currently before Congress. Among other things, the Afghan Adjustment Act would establish an interagency task force that could begin by providing a comprehensive picture of where at-risk Afghans actually are, and create a path to application for lawful permanent residency for many who now hold only temporary and uncertain status.

The American allies and activists most at risk are those still trapped in Afghanistan. “We still have ten thousand left on our list that didn’t make it out,” Horia Mosadiq, who helps lead Operation White Scarves, told me. The list includes one of Mosadiq’s colleagues who has been detained and tortured twice. There are at least three women on the list still inside Afghanistan who are under extreme threat. At least one was highly known for her work in tackling cases of violence against women, including cases committed by members of the Taliban. For those who have escaped, their families are now at risk of retribution. “Silencing exists far beyond the borders of Afghanistan,” she said.

There are still efforts to get women at severe risk out of Afghanistan, but they face steep odds. “There aren’t many flights available,” VanDiver told me. Given the demand, it’s nearly impossible to find a seat on one. Also, for many, evacuating through a third-party country is prohibitively expensive. “In a best-case scenario, we estimate that a family of five needs between twelve and twenty-five thousand dollars just to travel and stay afloat while awaiting an asylum interview,” Laura Deitz, who runs Task Force Nyx, a grassroots group helping small numbers of high-risk families evacuate and resettle, told me. “Even if they have that kind of money, they run the risk of running out and becoming homeless as they wait for processing.” When their temporary visas expire, those who make it out have been sent back to Afghanistan. “We’ve seen women deported from Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Central Asian countries, and returned to the Taliban,” Mosadiq told me. “That’s why the speed of processing isn’t just a matter of bureaucracy—it’s life and death.”

Mehran, the activist in Falls Church, wakes many mornings in a panic that something has happened to her friends. One recent morning, she reached for her phone to find bloody images of them in her text messages. Dozens of women had met up in the former site of Kabul’s Green Zone to protest the Taliban’s first year in power. Some were caught by the Taliban and beaten with sticks and pipes between their legs. Among the women was Munisa Mubariz, who previously held a position in the Ministry of Finance. Photos showed her in a bright-green coat, screaming into the face of a Talib. “We were screaming, ‘Food, freedom, work!’ ” she told me later. “The Taliban took my phone, so I’ve gone into hiding,” she said. “I can’t even go to the doctor.” She was looking for the quickest way out of Afghanistan. “Nobody wants to leave their country,” she told me. “But I can’t survive here anymore.” ♦

The Evacuation of Afghanistan Never Ended