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CIA-backed Afghan fighters still waiting to reach US

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CIA-backed Afghan fighters still waiting to reach US

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WASHINGTON — During the frantic evacuation from Afghanistan in August, American troops securing Kabul airport from suicide bombers and other dangers were not alone. Under CIA direction, agency-trained Afghan counterterrorism teams helped patrol the perimeter, secure gates, and smuggle American citizens through.

These Afghan commandos stayed until the end and were among the very last allies to be evacuated. But even as some 80,000 other Afghan refugees quickly reached the United States, hundreds of CIA-backed fighters and their families are among the thousands who have remained stranded in a sprawling refugee complex in the Emirati desert.

As weeks have turned into months, some members of CIA-backed squads — which have been accused at times over the past two decades of killing civilians and other wartime abuses — say they feel abandoned, victims of a chaotic withdrawal in which the speed with which Afghans left for the United States was often determined only by the type of plane they had embarked.

Biden administration officials say they are on track to eventually come to the United States.

But the commandos’ plight underscores the problems that continue to plague broad evacuation, screening and resettlement efforts five months after the Taliban’s brutal takeover of Afghanistan in August.

At the most basic level, all the Afghans who helped NATO forces during the 20-year war in Afghanistan and who are now in Abu Dhabi are lucky: they are out with their families and safe. Since August, numerous non-judicial executions have been perpetrated against former members of the government security forces who remained in Afghanistan.

But interviews with half a dozen officials involved in the effort and people familiar with the stories provided by some of the commandos help illustrate major differences in how the Afghans who came out are treated depending on the planes in which they boarded at Kabul airport.

The Afghans who boarded the American military planes were the luckiest: they were taken to bases where agreements with the host countries allowed them to stay only a few weeks. After being vetted at these temporary transit locations, the Department of Homeland Security invoked a rarely used “humanitarian parole” power to quickly move them to the United States.

As a result, almost all of these approximately 80,000 Afghans have already been able to join the United States. Most of them have been resettled and are starting new lives, although their applications for permanent status with a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, are still being processed.

By contrast, Afghans who embarked on non-US evacuation flights, such as charters operated by the United Arab Emirates, were taken to facilities in host countries where they can stay indefinitely, including the resort run by the United Arab Emirates known as Emirates Humanitarian City. A significant portion of its approximately 9,000 resident refugees are CIA-trained fighters and their families, according to people familiar with the matter.

Because those Afghans in places like Humanitarian City are safe, the United States is processing them under regular bureaucratic order, officials said. As a result, they have to wait there until their SIV applications are completed, which can take several months. Requirements for vaccinations and medical tests can further slow down the process.

Biden administration officials were reluctant to specifically talk about or acknowledge the CIA-backed squads. But they insisted that all evacuees from Humanitarian City and other countries be treated fairly.

“We are working to develop a standardized process that ensures we meet our commitments to our Afghan allies,” National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said in a statement. “We cannot underestimate the anxiety they and their families must be feeling. Those of us working on this file want to alleviate that anxiety as best we can and fulfill our country’s commitment to them.

An official said about 500 SIV applicants a week reach a stage in the process where the State Department places them in a queue for possible transfer to the United States, and about a quarter of the population of refugees from Humanitarian City is now at this stage. stage.

But this official also said that even for this group, it would likely take several more months at best before these applicants move through any further steps in the visa process. Another official said it would likely take another five months before CIA fighters and their families could come to the United States.

The fighters are different from most other refugees in several ways, including the key role they played working with the CIA on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism campaigns, in which they were often sent to kill or capturing high-profile targets such as those of the Taliban’s violent Haqqani network and al-Qaeda.

Their American trainers considered them effective and reliable in fighting the Taliban. But many Afghan civilians blamed them for their own acts of terror: violent raids on rural villages, killing civilians indiscriminately and mistreating prisoners.

In 2019, a report by Human Rights Watch accused CIA-trained counterterrorism forces of killing civilians in nighttime raids aimed at hitting terror cells. The report details 14 instances where CIA-trained units committed “serious abuses” between 2017 and 2019.

Several senior U.S. officials said counterterrorism fighters were not assessed more cautiously because of the type of role they played in the war and were on track to receive SIV status. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the nature of the work the Afghans are doing in conjunction with the CIA

And after The New York Times began asking about the group, US officials tried to reassure them that they would be granted visas to enter the United States within the next three to six months, according to reports. people informed of the conversations.

This two-tier system in which some Afghans must complete their visa process before entering, another official said, reflects the scale of the challenge: US programs that resettle refugees are already outdated, having been scaled back over the years. Trump then faced the huge influx of Afghans. There are still about 12,000 Afghans on national military bases waiting to be matched with resettlement agencies that will move them to a town and help them get started, officials said.

There are also smaller groups of Afghan refugees who still hope to come to the United States scattered elsewhere, including about 250 in a staging area in Qatar. And there are around 200 of them at a NATO base in Kosovo, including several dozen men who were screened out during the initial screening of those who would otherwise be eligible for humanitarian parole and who are therefore subject additional control, as well as relatives who stay with them.

But even as US officials advise patience, those still waiting in the desert outside Abu Dhabi are growing increasingly frustrated. Those feelings appear particularly acute among counterterrorism units, who say they served the United States at significant personal risk until the end — even as other units surrendered to the Taliban or blended into the countryside.

“These guys should be credited for doing what they did for 20 years – fighting our common enemy, al-Qaeda and the Taliban,” said Mick Mulroy, a retired CIA paramilitary officer and veteran of the military. Afghanistan.

Mr Mulroy said he was not criticizing the Emirates and praised the UAE for taking in the Afghan refugees. But he said the United States, under the procedures, should expedite its passage to America.

In conversations with Americans, fighters described conditions in Humanitarian City as tense and increasingly unpleasant, adding to their sense of being forgotten.

The facility is essentially a collection of makeshift hotels designed for short-term stays. It was established in 2003, initially to be a hub to help aid workers get to disaster areas. Last August, the Emirates agreed to host 5,000 evacuees in Humanitarian City, although there are many more now.

While food is plentiful, people familiar with the daily life of locals said it has been a source of recurring complaints among refugees.

In particular, one of the people described the food as being cooked and spiced Indian style, saying Afghan evacuees found it unpalatable. It’s also sometimes spoiled: The person provided the Times with photos and videos showing moldy eggs, spoiled meat, rice served with mixed shreds of paper, and rotten potatoes. The person said some children had food poisoning this month, forcing a temporary halt to meal service.

Lines to see a doctor for vaccines required for admission to the United States or other medical care last for hours, people familiar with resident complaints said, and medications are often out of stock. of stock when looking to fill their prescriptions. Most medical personnel are Indian or Ugandan, requiring translators.

In a statement, the Emirates Embassy in Washington said it had assisted in the evacuation of more than 40,000 people from Afghanistan. The Emirates provided food and health services as well as school and recreational activities at the air-conditioned facilities in Humanitarian City, the embassy said. The Humanitarian City facilities were designed to house people only temporarily, the embassy said, and the United States is leading efforts to transfer evacuees.

A senior administration official said conditions at Humanitarian City were as good as or better than those of refugees still at US military bases, which have also been strained because they weren’t designed to house a large number of refugees for a long time.

But Afghans in the Emirates said they would prefer to be in the United States during the visa process so they can immediately begin their search for work and a new life. And the longer they wait, the more Afghans fear they won’t travel to the United States.

Former CIA officers who worked with them said their efforts on behalf of America should be recognized.

“These guys have been fighting literally every night for 20 years,” Mr Mulroy said. “They are really competent. They have proven themselves. »

CIA-backed Afghan fighters still waiting to reach US

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