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This article is part of a Fox News Digital series examining the consequences of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan one year ago this week.
The U.S. military evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for the American government during the country’s two-decade war in Afghanistan, but many thousands more were left behind and face increasingly dire circumstances under Taliban rule.
“There’s no future for them under Taliban rule,” Perry Blackburn, a former Army Green Beret and founder of AFG Free, an organization that works to evacuate U.S. allies from Afghanistan, told Fox News Digital.
Blackburn, who as a member of 5th Special Forces Group took part in the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, said his mission now is to help keep America’s promise to the Afghan people who worked for the U.S. during its war in Afghanistan, many of whom were left behind during the U.S. withdrawal and left with few options for escape from Taliban rule.
Estimates on the number of Afghan allies still in the country vary widely, but the figure could approach 300,000. The U.S. was able to evacuate close to 80,000 Afghan civilians in the final days of the war, including an estimated 3,000 Special Immigrant Visa applicants. But for the many thousands left behind, life under Taliban rule has put their lives in constant jeopardy.
“I see reports daily of the Taliban dragging people out of their homes and beating them,” Long War Journal managing editor Bill Roggio told Fox News Digital.
Roggio said Taliban reprisals have had a “chilling effect” on those who worked for the U.S. during the war, with penalties for those hunted down by the Taliban ranging from fines and beatings to execution.
He noted that anyone who worked for the Afghan government, journalists, former Afghan military, or even those who worked in embassies could become a target for the Taliban. Women are especially vulnerable, most notably those who have spoken out for women’s rights.
The reality has left many in hiding or on the run, attempting to keep a low profile and out of the Taliban’s crosshairs.
“It’s just widespread oppression,” Roggio said.
These groups enjoyed a degree of protection while U.S. forces were in the country and the former government was in power, but the widespread control the Taliban now has over Afghanistan leaves former U.S. allies vulnerable to retribution.
“Now they have the ability to target whoever they want,” Roggio said of the Taliban. “If they control the whole country, they have access to whoever they want, whenever they want.”
Blackburn said those left behind helped the U.S. in a variety of ways, working for the American military as mechanics, logistics support and as interpreters. Their service to the American government will now make life in Afghanistan impossible, leaving them dependent on family to provide support due to their inability to earn an income.
“They have no job and they will not be employed in any part” of Afghanistan, Blackburn said, adding that even private employers would not “accept the risk” of hiring someone wanted by the Taliban for fear of reprisals.
But the road out of Afghanistan for those left behind is difficult to navigate, a problem Blackburn’s organization is trying to fix. Working with a network of organizations and people on the ground in Afghanistan, AFG Free provides support for those seeking to escape by arranging shelter, meals and visa assistance.
Blackburn said he receives innumerable requests for help every day, with people calling him at all hours or reaching out to him on social networks such as LinkedIn. Once his organization takes on a person’s case, the process is plagued by red tape, with applicants being forced to wait months for approval from the U.S. government.
“They’ll call me in the middle of the night,” Blackburn said. “They will find through their own networks my phone number, they will pass it down through social media or on LinkedIn, WhatsApp, they will contact us on our website.”
Applicants also have no way to complete the process from within Afghanistan, forcing them to find a way to travel outside the country for a visa interview.
“They have to leave Afghanistan to get to a third country so that they can have their interview,” Blackburn said. “It’s crazy.”
Organizations like Blackburn’s use handlers looking for employment to help move applicants around and provide them shelter. Once the visa interview is complete, Blackburn’s organization provides the applicant with shelter and food while waiting for final approval.
“We have that network of people that will help us out at different times,” Blackburn explained. “Get money in there, get food in there.”
He estimates that his network has helped 7,000-9,000 Afghans out of the country, but a lot more remain.
“We’re going to have to continue to help people that deserve to be out of that country,” Blackburn said.
Blackburn believes the government could be doing more, including using the help of organizations such as his and streamlining the process.
“They need to leverage all of these veteran groups to help them…. it’s free labor,” he said. “They need to figure out their interview process. It’s unrealistic to expect them to get out of Afghanistan and go to a second country to do an interview and then be able to sustain themselves.
“This is the 21st century,” Blackburn added. “Get on a phone and do an interview process… you can see them, you can talk to them.”
But with the process the way it is, Blackburn said many have lost hope that they will ever be able to escape Afghanistan.
“Talking to them on the phone, you can just hear the hopelessness in their voice,” Blackburn said. “Part of what we do is to try to keep their morale up and to find solutions to their problems, but it’s tough on them and some of them have given up.”
Yet Blackburn expressed that he will continue to work to get as many people out of Afghanistan as he can, arguing that those who helped the U.S. earned the right to a new life in the U.S.
“The people that worked with us, that partnered with us, deserve that opportunity,” he said. “They know there’s no future for them under Taliban rule because they did work for us. They were hunted by factions after we left. They’re with us.”
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