1 year after U.S. withdrawal, Afghan collaborators still living in fear

Taliban fighters celebrate the first anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan, in front of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Aug. 31.

Aug. 30 marked one year since U.S. forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Following the chaotic pullout, many Afghans who aided the U.S. government are still waiting for Washington to grant them entry to the U.S.

Jan (not his real name) worked with the U.S. forces in Afghanistan as a member of Unit 02, which was responsible for combatting the Taliban. Jan said he often felt threatened by the Taliban back then, but now that the group has returned to power, he feels more imperiled than ever.

“The country is as desolate as it was before,” the 33-year-old told The Yomiuri Shimbun, using a local language.

In retaliation for the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001, U.S. and British forces attacked Afghanistan the following month, toppling the Taliban regime. But the Taliban launched an insurgency that led to about 20 years of conflict with the U.S., the longest war in American history. In February 2020, the administration of then U.S. President Donald Trump agreed a peace agreement with the Taliban and President Joe Biden subsequently withdrew all U.S. troops by Aug. 30, 2021.

About 40 of Jan’s Unit 02 colleagues fled to the United States after the U.S. left, but about 200 people, including Jan, remain stranded, moving from one hideout to another for safety reasons. Some have been detained by the Taliban and beaten and tortured. Without jobs and money, they struggle to find food for their families.

About 8,000 Afghan allies have been granted special U.S. settlement visas. But an Afghan aid group estimates about 160,000 people are still on the visa waiting list, noting that it would take Washington more than 18 years to approve all the visas if it continues to operate at its current pace.

Jan is among those waiting for a visa. He says that the U.S. government should have evacuated Afghan allies in advance.

“The pullout of the American forces should have gone down differently,” he said. “They should have left responsibly.”

Jan and his five children live in fear of being killed in Afghanistan, but he remains hopeful that the U.S will “fulfill its responsibility” soon.

“I urge the U.S. government to help the people who worked with America, but who remain in Afghanistan under the Taliban,” Jan said. “They should be freed of their burden and transferred to a safe place,” he added.

Taliban ‘more evil than before’

“People are dying mysteriously every day,” said 19-year-old Ahmad (not his real name) in mid-August, while crouching in a corner of a relative’s house where he is hiding with his family.

In January 2020, Ahmed started working for a company that supplied oil to the U.S. military. But with the fall of Kabul on Aug. 15 last year, the Taliban set up checkpoints at numerous locations and the cityscape totally changed.

Eleven days later, a loud explosion and billowing smoke presaged a gunfight in front of Kabul International Airport just as Ahmed and his family were waiting there to be evacuated. Members of the Islamic State — hostile toward the Taliban — had launched a suicide bomb attack. Ahmad’s mother was killed and his 16-year-old sister went missing.

Following the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban has been targeting Afghans who cooperated with American and other international forces.

Like many others, Ahmad has been unable to leave the house for fear of retributive attacks. Early in the morning, his father pushes a goods cart at a fruit market and earns 200 afghanis (about ¥310) a day to support his family of four, including two of Ahmad’s young sisters.

Shortly after returning to power last August, the Taliban declared an amnesty for all Afghan citizens — including former regime officials and those who worked with foreign countries — promising not to harm them. By June, however, purported retaliatory attacks had killed 160 former regime officials and others, the United Nations reported.

The Taliban’s pursuit of such individuals is partly down to the collapse of its former regime in 2001 following military assaults by the United States, Britain and other countries. The Taliban tried to surrender, but then U.S. President George W. Bush, who prioritized the eradication of terrorism, dismissed the offer and tried to wipe out the group’s remaining fighters.

“Even though the Taliban leadership has issued an amnesty, the group’s fighters still think about vengeance,” said Kenta Aoki, a researcher at the Middle East Institute of Japan. “It’s hard to stop that.”

‘Lucky’ escape

Ahmad Noman, who worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military from 2016, fled to the United States with his family of eight in August 2021.

“I’m the luckiest one,” the 25-year-old said in English, recalling his escape from a neighborhood bomb attack two years ago that was likely meant to kill him.

He said the Taliban was basically unchanged but had “become worse than 20 years ago.”

“They say … OK, we’ll allow the girls to study, but they blocked the schools. So they become liars and it shows that they are worse,” he said.

Noman said he often wakes up at night worrying about colleagues and relatives left behind in Afghanistan. The World Food Programme says 18.9 million Afghans — nearly half the population — are “facing acute hunger.”

Noman now works at a Florida nursing home, helping Afghan evacuees and sending money to relatives. “It hurts me,” he said, while musing on how he could have done more to help people.

“It was my big dream from the beginning of my life, helping the people … I try my best to at least do those things which I promise to myself,” he said.