Editor’s note: This is part three of a three-part series across AmeriForce Media publications.
Shortly after President Joe Biden announced the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Phil Caruso penned an editorial for “The Washington Post” outlining his concerns about what might happen.
“I said we need to evacuate these people. And when I go back, and I read that op-ed … it sends chills down my spine,” said Caruso, acting director for the nonprofit No One Left Behind. “It’s almost like my worst fears played out exactly as I had feared. I think by time August came around, I was not surprised at the deterioration of things.”
With days left in the withdrawal, a suicide bomber attacked Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, killing 13 U.S. service members.
Afghanistan evacuation: U.S. allies in ‘a race against time’ one year after troop withdrawal
Once Kabul fell, the urgency became helping “as many people escape as possible,” said Caruso, who served 14 years active duty and reserve Air Force officer, deploying twice to Afghanistan (in 2011 with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations Expeditionary Detachment 2413 in Kandahar and in 2014 as detachment commander for a specialized detachment under Joint Detachment Apollo).
No One Left Behind reported in early August that it has helped evacuate nearly 1,800 people since August 2021 and is tracking more than 69,000 special immigrant visa (SIV) principal applicants and their families still in Afghanistan.
In 2022 alone, the group has helped nearly 650 SIV families resettle in the states.
‘Advocacy has become much more important’
Loren Voss, an Air Force reservist and chair of the NOLB evacuation committee, was involved early in setting up processes and procedures for tracking SIV applicants’ data. Her work included a detailed, tabbed Excel spreadsheet to track where SIV applicants are in Kabul, out of Kabul, outside of the airport, their last check-in, making it inside the airport, boarding a plane, landing in their designated country and so on.
NOLB now has a full-time employee who leads evacuation efforts and the committee assists with strategic thinking and planning.
But in addition to evacuation efforts, NOLB also advocates for establishing a permanent SIV program. It’s currently authorized and funded year to year, which Doug Livermore, NOLB’s advocacy committee chair, said creates challenges for the state department.
“There needs to be more done. [There needs to be a] more holistic approach that addresses the entire SIV process,” he said.
Livermore, who previously served as the evacuation committee chair, said that early on, there was a ton of interest in donating because news coverage at the time of Kabul’s fall “really drove home the immediacy of the threat.”
By November, he said, interest was waning, and the news cycle had moved on.
“It’s been a challenge and in some ways a little frustrating to see the level of interest ebb and flow,” Livermore said.
Livermore added that it’s been a struggle over the past several months because evacuees are “stuck in third countries,” and NOLB has been doing what it can to provide additional support.
“Advocacy has become much more important as we try to keep attention on this issue,” Livermore said.
SIV processing problems
The most important aspect of the evacuation process that needs to be addressed, according to Voss, is the required processing timeline. U.S. policy requires processing prior to entry into the country. The paperwork, according to Voss, can take two years and not all of it can be completed in Afghanistan. Potential evacuees have to be in a third country.
“It’s a slow process that doesn’t take into the reality of the situation for the hundreds of thousands of people on the ground that are in hiding [and] having their lives threatened,” Voss said.
Caruso also said more third countries or military bases need to host evacuees.
“We need to give them housing, food, medical care and process their visas,” Caruso said. “Our most urgent concern is just getting them to safety. The visa process can play out as long as it plays out … The limiting factor right now is there’s not enough capacity at the one facility in Doha, Qatar.”
A number of people, according to Voss, have gone through Pakistan to get processed, but the country doesn’t issue visas for “long periods of time.” So when they expire, evacuees can be jailed or returned to Afghanistan, she said.
Through NOLB fundraising efforts, Voss said the group has flown about 200 people to the U.S. who otherwise would have been “stuck in Pakistan” or sent back to Afghanistan.
But even getting SIV approval and entering the U.S. is “really only the beginning,” according to Livermore.
“There are all sorts of resettlement requirements once they get here … The current processes leave a lot to be desired,” Livermore said.
Looking back, looking ahead
Reflecting on the past year, Seth Middleton, a retired Army colonel who is helping families escape Afghanistan, said he has seen progress – something not guaranteed in August.
“We didn’t know what the future would hold,” he said. “I would say there’s less public attention than I would like on the matter.”
Still, he said the state department has been “doing extraordinary things,” and he’s grateful for those who have been engaged in the process. The process, though, is slower than he’d prefer when families are in “extremely dire situations” like threats on their lives, being in dire health and on the run.
Similarly, Caruso said “a lot of progress” has been made in the past year between the state department and advocacy groups. But NOLB focuses not so much on what has been done, but on what needs to be done.
There are potentially more than 160,000 people, including principal applicants and family members, at risk in Afghanistan.
“The current pace of what the U.S. government’s doing and what we’re doing, it’s going to be a decade-plus … [We’re] doing a lot, but it’s not enough,” Caruso said.
For his part, Army Reserve Col. Greg Fairbank, who was involved with NOLB’s evacuation efforts, said they recognize the humanitarian issues arising from the war in Ukraine, which brought out “a tremendous amount of sympathy.”
“And that’s not wrong. But I think it’s important to remember, just as the Ukrainian people are going through absolute horrors and are … worthy of assistance … Afghans risked their lives for the United States,” he said.
While Wasim – an Afghan with military connections who spoke to AmeriForce Media under a pseudonym – said he appreciates the DOD, but echoed that more needs to be done.
“The only hope that they have, they’re kind of hoping in some way, the U.S. will make a decision and find a solution … Those people that were fighting against terrorist groups in Afghanistan for 20 years, now they are in really chaotic situation.”
Caruso said there’s “no substitute” for the U.S. government in helping those still in Afghanistan.
“It ultimately falls on the U.S. government to do more,” he said.