KABUL—Rahmat says he carried out secret missions spying on the Taliban for the Central Intelligence Agency in remote border areas of Afghanistan for almost a decade.
He has no contract to prove it, and his CIA supervisors never shared their real names. Now, as the U.S. prepares to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, thousands of Afghans who worked for the U.S. are at risk of Taliban retaliation.
“They didn’t give us anything because our missions were secret,” said Rahmat, who has wavy black hair and a slight frame, recalling in low tones the CIA officers who cycled in and out of his life. “One was Santos. Mary, Jason, Stu, John.”
Rahmat’s story is emblematic of the hurdles that Afghans, particularly those in intelligence, face in joining a visa program aimed at relocating people who worked for the U.S. government to the U.S. Applications for the Special Immigrant Visa typically require details such as contract numbers, certificates and supervisors’ names and addresses.
Rahmat said all he has to prove his identity and work history are yellowed photographs, a letter from a trucking company that served as his cover, and an old badge. Afghan officials who know him personally, both now and at the time of his recruitment, confirmed his account. The Wall Street Journal agreed to use only his first name.
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The 14-step process to apply for a Special Immigrant Visa requires more paperwork than the CIA typically provides to local hires, according to a former CIA officer who served in Afghanistan who doesn’t know Rahmat but spoke in general. Record-keeping was also minimal compared with other government agencies, especially in earlier years of the war. Afghans working on so-called black operations might not even be named on classified contracts retained by the agency, the former officer said.
“It’s very likely he could have worked for 10 years even, done all the things he said, and walked away without a scrap of paper to prove any of that,” the former CIA officer said about Rahmat. “It’s a clandestine organization working in a classified environment.”
One of the Afghan officials who knows him personally said dozens of Afghans like Rahmat contact him daily to ask for help reaching their American handlers because their lives are now at risk.
A U.S. official said the CIA has for years helped local partners with their applications and values their contributions and sacrifices. A person familiar with the CIA’s efforts said that former employees could typically rely on a personal network to track down their supervisors in the U.S. and the agency sometimes provided resources to help them relocate inside or outside the country.
“I never asked them to help me get a visa because at that time, I never imagined we would face a situation where I have to leave my country,” said Rahmat, who guesses his age to be around 40. “It is unfortunate that I worked to help them finish terrorism in my country, and instead terrorism got stronger. I never imagined that one day, the Taliban would be this strong.”
The first American to die in combat after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was a CIA operative killed in a prison uprising in Mazar-e-Sharif. The agency spent almost two decades running intelligence and paramilitary operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, relying on local staff as translators, spies and security guards. Missions in remote areas were kept off the books or hidden behind top secret classifications.
In 2001, Rahmat said, the CIA recruited him from a group of fighters in the east who had battled the Taliban alongside American troops. He started in eastern Kunar province and spent four years with a counterterrorism unit tasked with killing or capturing local insurgents.
He later joined a six-man intelligence-gathering team, he said, spying on the Taliban on both sides of the Pakistani border. Rahmat said he made over 200 trips to Pakistan—where the insurgency’s leadership is based—over the next six years. He said the CIA met him at a military base after each mission for a debrief, and paid him in cash.
The CIA paid well. He said his pay increased from $700 to $1,000 per mission—a lot of money in a country where the per capita income is barely $500 a year.
Rahmat said he lost his job in 2014 when the Obama administration began drawing down the U.S. deployment in Afghanistan and closed some bases and outposts. He said his last CIA supervisor promised to give him a certificate that would attest to his years of service, but they failed to link up before the spy’s departure.
Since then, he said, the Taliban have gunned down several of his former comrades after linking them to a deadly U.S. drone strike in the area.
“All the villagers in my home province know that I was working for Americans, and all of them also know what kind of work I was doing,” he said. “I cannot go to my home province now. I am under threat. I cannot walk and move freely outside.”
Rahmat has appealed to No One Left Behind, an independent Virginia-based advocacy group for Special Immigrant Visa applicants, for help in tracking down his U.S. supervisors. His brother, who worked for the U.S. military, just obtained his SIV after a two-year wait, and arrived in the U.S. this month. Together, and relying on a network of friends who have made it, they hope to find someone to vouch for Rahmat’s service.
The Special Immigrant Visa program is aimed at translators and interpreters, individuals who performed “sensitive and trusted activities for U.S. military personnel,” and others. It has been beset by delays, and at least 300 Afghans have been killed waiting for a visa since 2009, according to No One Left Behind. Visas that by law must be approved or denied within nine months are instead taking three to five years to adjudicate. Earlier this month, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said it would pause interviews for visa applicants due to concerns about Covid-19.
Military leaders, veterans groups, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress have urged the Biden administration to evacuate the former government workers and their families and process the visa applications in a third country. So far, the administration has resisted those calls and says it has added staff in Washington to process Special Immigrant Visa applications.
The State Department has a backlog of about 18,000 pending applications, Secretary of State
told Congress earlier this month.
“We’re determined to make good on our obligation to those who helped us, who put their lives on the line, put their families’ lives on the line working with our military, working with our diplomats,” Mr. Blinken said on CNN this month.
Many Afghans who worked for the U.S. have seen their cases rejected or can’t even apply for lack of paperwork, having left their jobs years ago, aid workers and Afghan officials said. Others lack the necessary funds, including several thousand dollars for medical screenings.
The SIV program is “a bureaucratic nightmare, and the burden of that bureaucratic nightmare is borne by the applicant primarily,” said Deepa Alagesan, a lawyer with the International Refugee Assistance Project, a nonprofit organization that helps refugees apply to come to the U.S. “What they call a 14-step process doesn’t capture all of the back-and-forth and all of the possible pitfalls.”
Even those who apply are having a harder time winning visas, State Department statistics show. The State Department’s latest report to Congress shows a rapid increase in Special Immigrant Visa denials from Afghanistan at the end of 2020. It approved 237 and denied 1,640 between October and December, compared with 283 approvals and 430 denials between July and September.
Rahmat tried to set up a small business after he stopped working for the CIA, he said. His way to the U.S. blocked, Rahmat lives in hiding with his wife and 10 children, who range in age from 3 to 21.
“They promised us that if you get in trouble we can get you and your family out from Afghanistan to the U.S.,” said Rahmat, referring to his CIA handlers. “But it did not happen.”
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