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US Should Help Afghan Civil Society Partners at Risk

Taliban Advances a Threat to Many Activists, Journalists, Educators

A US flag is lowered as American and Afghan soldiers attend a handover ceremony from the US Army to the Afghan National Army, at Camp Anthonic, in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan on May 2, 2021. © 2021 Afghan Ministry of Defense Press Office via AP

For many Afghans, the middle-of-the-night departure of US forces from Bagram Air Base was like a kick in the teeth after 20 years of supposed partnership. As the US withdrew its remaining troops from Afghanistan, Afghan government forces appear to be rapidly collapsing in the face of a Taliban offensive that has seen more than 150 districts fall in just eight weeks.

Left behind were some 18,000 interpreters who worked for US forces, whose fate depends on the US expediting Special Immigration Visa (SIV) relocations that would allow them to leave the country and escape Taliban retaliation. But also at risk are thousands of Afghans who worked with partner organizations, media outlets, and educational institutions that the US funded, sponsored, and helped establish. Women’s rights activists are particularly alarmed by new Taliban restrictions in areas where they have assumed control. I have heard from many desperate Afghan journalists and activists seeking advice as threats to them escalate.

Some have written to me frankly about their fears. One said: “I cannot even go from my office to my home. This is the first time I don’t feel safe.” Said another: “I don’t want to be killed and my babies faced with uncertain future.” Women activists and journalists have been reaching out. One said: “I have survived Taliban attacks several times, but they are still threatening me.” Another: “I even hide from my colleagues.”

On June 25, the Biden administration said it was committed to protecting “the most vulnerable Afghans.” But with limited pathways to protection, such statements ring hollow.

One way forward would be for the US to prioritize these Afghans at risk by making them eligible for the US refugee admissions program under the P-2 (priority 2) category of refugees of special concern. They could be defined as Afghans who do not qualify under the SIV program but who worked or were associated with US citizens in Afghanistan. 

Such people would include employees of the American University of Afghanistan, women rights activists and other human rights defenders, journalists and other media workers who worked with US-supported media, and Afghan employees of US-based nongovernmental organizations, even if these were not operating under US-funded contracts.

The US should help their former staff and partners now as they face threats and persecution because of their association with the US engagement in Afghanistan.

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