Now that the Taliban are in control of Kabul, Ismail is afraid to leave his house.
“I’m under the threat,” he told CNN on Monday, “I’m like a prisoner.”
Ismail – whose last name is being withheld to protect his safety – is one of scores of Afghans who worked alongside the United States during its two-decade military campaign in Afghanistan and are now desperate for the US government’s help in getting out of the country.
The rapid collapse of the Afghan capital city into the hands of the Taliban has left the US scrambling to evacuate personnel from its embassy and has complicated efforts to relocate tens of thousands of Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants like Ismail who fear reprisal from the Taliban.
Although the Taliban have claimed they will not harm those who worked for foreign forces, Ismail does not believe their assurances of safety, noting that the “Taliban are the people that they never keep their promise.”
“They are promise breakers,” he said.
Even before the fall of Kabul, advocates and bipartisan lawmakers urged the administration to take expedited action to ensure that Afghan allies were not left behind and slaughtered, warning about the backlog of tens of thousands of applicants and the slow pace of processing ahead of the full withdrawal of US troops.
Over the weekend, as the situation deteriorated in Afghanistan, the Department of Homeland Security and its federal partners worked overtime to pull long Excel lists of names of Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants to push through systems and get security checks, according to a DHS official – a meticulous effort that requires cross-checking. The Defense Department was asked to help the State Department with the Special Immigrant Visa program “to accelerate and help the process due to the time delays,” inherent in the application process, according to Garry Reid, who leads the Pentagon’s Special Immigrant Visa effort.
However, some applicants have waited years for their visas to be approved. Others, like Ismail, are working to get US assistance after being denied visas, ensnared in bureaucratic red tape.
Ismail worked alongside the US Army Corps of Engineers at Bagram Air Base for years, working as an interpreter, driver and shooter.
“If something would have happened, he would have been in between the threat and the US personnel, so he would have been the first line of defense,” said Ryan Jackson, a former US defense contractor who worked with Ismail at Bagram.
Ismail, a father of four, told CNN, “I was working with the US troops to make good money to look after my family.”
In 2011, he applied for a Special Immigrant Visa, and his supervisor, John Spiekhout, wrote him a glowing recommendation.
“He is very intelligent, honist (sic), well educated, and his language Skills are Superb,” Spiekhout wrote in a March 2011 letter shared with CNN by Jackson. “I give my strongest recommendation for approval of his Visa without hesitation.”
Jackson told CNN that not long after Spiekhout returned to Michigan, he took his own life.
“Imail’s assistance with the SIV program kind of died with him,” Jackson said.
Ismail said his application was denied because the embassy was not able to reach Spiekhout to confirm his letter of recommendation.
He is hopeful that a new letter of recommendation from Jackson will help his case.
But for now, Ismail, like so many others, worries about remaining in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
“We are all living with fear,” he said.
Although the Biden administration has said it will “accelerate the evacuation of thousands of Afghans eligible for U.S. Special Immigrant Visas” in the coming days, chaos at the Kabul airport has stymied evacuation flights, and CNN learned on Sunday that Special Immigrant Visa evacuation flights to Fort Lee, Virginia, had been halted for the time being as the administration prioritizes the evacuation of Americans.
The administration has not announced which third countries will take in applicants and their families, although CNN reported last week that the US is nearing a deal with Qatar.
The US Embassy in Kabul, which is key in processing the applicants, has shuttered and relocated to the airport, and the majority of its personnel are leaving Afghanistan.
Refugee organizations are still waiting for guidance from the State Department on when Special Immigrant Visa applicants and refugees fleeing Afghanistan can depart the country, fielding calls in the interim from people desperate for information.
“There’s a lot of confusion, a lot of worry,” said Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, which represents Special Immigrant Visa applicants and refugees. “We have clients that need to get to the airport to get out. We just don’t know if it’s safe to do so.” One of the organization’s Special Immigrant Visa clients had a flight canceled and hasn’t received word about when it will be rescheduled.
Three sources said Monday that the agencies haven’t yet received an update on when the flights will kick back up again.
“It has been one surprise after another,” one source said. “The tragedy is they’ve had years and years to process these people.”
CNN’s Ellie Kaufman contributed to this report.