Afghan activists, journalists and advocates for women’s rights scrambled to identify escape routes on Sunday as international civil society organizations intensified a chaotic effort to evacuate local allies under threat following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.
The stunningly swift collapse of the Afghan state injected a sense of desperation into a month-long effort by outside aid groups and religious and advocacy organizations to secure visas, flights or any kind of way out for Afghans seen as likely militant targets.
Human rights organizations in recent days have sent the State Department flurries of emails with spreadsheets laying out the identities and personal details of thousands of Afghans who do not qualify for the priority visa consideration already announced by the Biden administration but whose lives are believed to be in jeopardy.
The sense of peril was compounded by warnings some in the Taliban delivered to female activists to stay quiet.
One women’s rights activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared for her safety, said that she and others who had gained international recognition while being encouraged by the United States for their public stances were now at risk, along with their families.
“We were the ones who raised our voices for years,” she said of her fellow female activists. “Afghanistan is on fire. No one has a visa. No one has anything. Honestly, I am lost.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, defending President Joe Biden’s handling of the situation in televised interviews on Sunday, said the administration had launched a “massive” effort to evacuate at-risk Afghans but provided few details.
U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss planning, said the State Department is considering flying activists out on U.S. aircraft or government-sponsored charters. The officials also said they are discussing allowing in planes chartered by international organizations while U.S. forces hold Kabul’s international airport.
The fate of many of the Afghans now clamoring for help was obscured for months by congressional and media attention on former interpreters and other Afghans who worked directly with the U.S. government and were seeking asylum under the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, program.
While the administration in recent weeks has acted to accelerate the processing of SIV applicants and began airlifting applicants and their families out of Afghanistan, it has not done so for others who might be targeted by the Taliban because of their affiliation with international organizations but who are not eligible for the SIV program.
Several people involved in the evacuation effort said they were shocked by the Biden administration’s lack of preparation for the possibility that female activists and other vulnerable Afghans would be at risk and require aid - especially given how central the issue of women’s rights has been to the U.S. project in Afghanistan. It was an effort cited by successive American presidents as a justification for the U.S. presence.
A wave of assassinations over the past 18 months has targeted journalists, academics and advocates for peace. The Taliban has often denied responsibility for the attacks, while Afghan officials have blamed Taliban-linked militants.
Amed Khan, a New York-based philanthropist and human rights advocate who has been working to evacuate at-risk Afghans, said that between the SIV applicants, women’s rights activists and other allies, thousands of people have “risked their lives implementing our agenda for the last 20 years.”
“I have full faith in President Biden that he will keep U.S. troops in Kabul to protect all of the 100,000 people who are on top of the Taliban kill list,” he said.
A number of outside groups have been attempting to charter aircraft to fly out local staff - a single flight can cost roughly $1.4 million for a 40-seat plane - but can’t act on those plans unless they can ensure flights can safely land and depart. In other instances, wealthy individuals have come forward and provided private planes, and some governments such as Albania have said they will accept people without visas.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said her organization was flooded with appeals from panicking Afghans. She said the administration’s promise to expand assistance beyond the SIVs was welcome but made more difficult given the mounting uncertainty on the ground.
“There are no assurances that once these individuals have been identified, and credible claims are validated, that anything will come of it,” she said. “The ever-changing conditions on the ground have kind of drawn into question what we can do for these people.”
Some U.S. lawmakers said that American forces need to hold the Kabul airport as long as necessary to allow as many evacuations as possible.
“My plea is that we reestablish security at the Kabul airport and reestablish it not just for a short window to get the remaining American citizens,” but also Afghans now under mounting threat, said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., who was among the lawmakers briefed by Blinken and others in a call on Sunday morning. “That is the point of pressure right now.”
It’s unclear what control the United States has over airport operations at this stage or what the Taliban, which is commandeering government facilities and taking at least nominal control of the country’s security forces, will allow.
The Biden administration had previously planned for the Turkish government to assume responsibility for safeguarding the airport after the U.S. departure, but those arrangements were never finalized. It now appears to be what one U.S. official called “uncharted waters.”
“They haven’t forgotten everyone else, which is good, but I do think when the rubber hits the road, the worry is that they won’t want to have mission creep for the military,” an advocacy group official said.
Tanya Henderson, the founder and executive director of Mina’s List, which supports women’s political leadership and participation globally, said her organization and a vast network of other groups - from nonprofit entities to international donors, in coordination with the U.S. government - had been working around-the-clock to evacuate some 8,000 Afghans, including women’s rights activists, human rights defenders, educators, actors and journalists.
The list was “growing by the minute,” she said.
After weeks of work, her organization’s Afghan partners had identified those who needed to be evacuated, along with their families, and worked out how to get them to the airport. It will all be for naught, she said, if the airport shuts down.
Henderson described feeling heartbroken to see a two-decades-long effort to strengthen women’s civil society fall apart.
“We are throwing that whole effort to the wolves,” she said.
Fahim reported from Istanbul. The Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian, Karen DeYoung and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.