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Marking 2 years since the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Two years after the chaotic U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, many thousands of lives are still unsettled. One hundred twenty thousand people were able to leave the country in an airlift that ended two years ago this week. But many others wanted to leave and couldn't, including some who fought and worked alongside American forces and were promised visas to the U.S. It has fallen to a small group of Americans to keep that promise, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Two people might have been at this the longest, Kirk Wallace Johnson...

KIRK WALLACE JOHNSON: Back in 2006, colleagues and friends of mine in Iraq were killed or were being hunted because they were affiliated with the United States.

LAWRENCE: And Matt Zeller.

MATT ZELLER: Way back in October of 2013, I was able to successfully evacuate my personal interpreter, Janis Shinwari, without whom I wouldn't be alive.

LAWRENCE: He doesn't mean that figuratively. The interpreter, Janis, shot a Taliban fighter who was about to shoot Zeller. Zeller didn't know much about asylum or refugees, he was an Army officer. Same with Johnson, he worked for USAID in Fallujah.

JOHNSON: I didn't have any sort of plans to become a refugee advocate or anything like that. It was just a simple matter of conscience.

LAWRENCE: Both men started organizations to help U.S. military allies escape. Fast forward to 2021 - Johnson had started a family and a successful career as a writer. His books were well-received, and the last two were not about Iraq.

JOHNSON: I was trying to move on from the wars. I was just in the run up to the fall of Kabul. Throughout that year, I could not look away. And I and many other people were getting bombarded with increasingly desperate emails.

LAWRENCE: And he got sucked back in. And then the Taliban took Kabul. And hundreds of thousands of Afghans needed to get out. Zeller's organization, No One Left Behind, is now one of hundreds of groups and individuals trying to save former U.S. allies from the Taliban.

ZELLER: I'm on this group chat that's been going on for two years now. And, you know, I would say, two or three times a week, there is - somebody reports, with visual evidence, the murder of somebody who has left behind.

LAWRENCE: The loss of one of these allies, most of whom have been waiting years for a U.S. visa, leaves behind a grieving family and often an irreversibly broken promise by a veteran.

SAFI RAUF: Veterans have this moral injury that is the most insidious type of injury that you can have.

LAWRENCE: Safi Rauf is in the U.S. Navy Reserves. He immigrated from Afghanistan as a kid and then worked alongside American Special Forces in Afghanistan. He says many veterans are still in this fight because of that moral injury.

RAUF: And this injury cannot be cured by any means except acts of service. And that's why all the veterans continue to do those acts of service, continue to have hope for something that will happen.

LAWRENCE: Rauf now runs a group called Human First that helps Afghans to escape and resettle. But roughly 50,000 Afghans who made it here still have no long-term legal status. They can't work. They can't get health insurance. They could be deported. Maybe triple that number are still stuck in Afghanistan waiting for a special immigrant visa - an SIV. Air Force vet Loren Voss works with No One Left Behind.

LOREN VOSS: So I was up last night reviewing some complicated cases.

LAWRENCE: Cases with well-known references, like the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

VOSS: You know, one of them was someone who had a letter from General Petraeus saying that this person was amazing and helped them in so many ways - and denied, right? And me trying to go through the paperwork and figuring out what went wrong.

LAWRENCE: As an intelligence officer, Voss can tell you why it's vital to national security that America preserves credibility with human intelligence assets. But that's not what's keeping her at this.

VOSS: That moral argument, to me, is the reason why, you know, I'm not the only one up at 1 a.m. I can get in any of the chats and ask a question, and five people will respond. I think what you hear now from a lot of them, though, is that their people are getting desperate. They're losing hope. You know, I've gotten messages before that someone's going to turn himself in to the Taliban so that his wife and kids are safe.

LAWRENCE: All of the vets and diplomats and faith groups working 'til 1 a.m., they say it's going to take government action to speed the endless backlog of SIV applications and fix the legal limbo for the Afghans in the U.S. There's a bill for that, the Afghan Adjustment Act, with votes to pass the Senate and the House. But Senators Tom Cotton and Chuck Grassley have blocked it since last year. In July, they offered their own bill, which they say provides more security vetting. Critics say it's dead on arrival and designed only for political cover of anti-immigrant views. Shawn VanDiver is a Navy vet who leads the group Afghan Evac.

SHAWN VANDIVER: All those people that on key anniversary date talk about how much they want to hold the administration accountable, we're hopeful that they'll remember that there're still lives on the line. This is an ongoing crisis. It's not done. It's not history.

LAWRENCE: VanDiver is angry but optimistic. He says there's still broad bipartisan support. And he points to 25,000 people evacuated from Afghanistan since after the U.S. withdrew two years ago this week. For Matt Zeller, his optimism comes and goes. He's been at this since 2013.

ZELLER: One of these years, it's going to be great. We're going to talk, and you'll be like, so what's the status? I'll be like, Quil, they're all here (laughter). That's what I would love to be able to say, is, you know, we did it. They're all here. We now have great Thanksgivings and Iftars together, and you should come by for one. But I fear that what's ultimately going to happen is, you know, one of these days you're going to say, how's it going? I'm going to say, most of them are dead.

LAWRENCE: Kirk Johnson says he watched the U.S. act quickly for Ukrainian refugees, not Afghans.

JOHNSON: But it's not lost on me that we're talking about Muslims. We're talking about people who have a different skin color than ours, who have done, in many cases, more in the service of the United States than your average American has.

LAWRENCE: This group of Americans - veterans, diplomats, religious groups and others - are marking this two-year anniversary of a war that isn't over for them.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SERGEY CHEREMISINOV'S "SEVEN LIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.