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Fearing Taliban Retribution, Afghans Who Worked For U.S. Seek Visas


American forces are rapidly withdrawing from Afghanistan. They're expected to be entirely gone in the next few months. But what happens now to thousands of Afghan people who worked for the U.S. over the years? Many of them fear the Taliban will retaliate against them. And they're eager to get visas to the U.S. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, says they will not be forgotten.


MARK MILLEY: The intent is with the State Department in the lead is to make sure that - it's really a moral imperative that we take care of those that have worked closely with us if their lives are in danger.

KING: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is following this story. Good morning, Tom.


KING: I want to ask you about numbers. How many Afghan people worked for the U.S. and would now like visas to come here?

BOWMAN: Well, around 17,000 or so are in the process, and thousands more if you consider they'd bring family members along with them. Now, this is all part of a special visa program set up about a dozen years ago. And over the years, some 18,000 visas have been issued. And, Noel, we're talking mostly about interpreters who work for the U.S. military. Now, it's supposed to take nine months for processing the visa. But it's taken a lot longer, as long as three years, because you have to submit your packet. It has to get approved by the embassy. Then it goes to U.S. customs and immigration. And then you have to get interviewed.

KING: That gap, though, between nine months that were promised and three years that happened in actuality, that is quite a lot of time for people who are afraid. Why does it take so long? Why can't it go faster?

BOWMAN: Well, it's the increased volume and also the lack of staff to process these visa requests. And that's led to these delays. The State Department inspector general said that in a report last year. So State Department has sent more staff to Kabul to process these requests and more staff in D.C. to help as well. Now, members of Congress, advocacy groups like No One Left Behind, Retired Generals, including David Petraeus, are pressing the Biden administration to do even more. And they tell stories, Noel, of Afghans who already have been killed by the Taliban because they worked for the Americans. And officials this week told lawmakers they're working with the National Security Council at the White House on this issue. And they're holding multiple meetings each week on this issue. And also - here's another thing - Congress may have to devote more money and increase the allotments of these visas to move all this forward.

KING: OK. So there's an understanding, multiple meetings each week. There's an understanding this is serious. That said, 17,000 people who want visas, not to mention their family members, how much time will it take to process all of this?

BOWMAN: Well, it's uncertain. And the people I talk with in Kabul are really worried about the security situation. What happens if it deteriorates even further? Let's say more U.S. embassy staff leaves. There's a great deal of worry now. And some friends of mine tell me Afghans are looking to get out with or without a U.S. visa, maybe to Turkey or Germany or across the border to Pakistan. Now, General Milley said he would caution those who believe the security situation could quickly fall apart. He said, listen; it's really too early to sound the alarm and get people out just yet. He also said there's a significant Afghan military and police, some 300,000. It's still a cohesive organization.

KING: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
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