As Americans Leave Afghanistan, Safety Questions Remain for Those Left Behind

Thousands of Afghan drivers, translators, and others who worked for Americans for decades say they risk death at the hands of the Taliban

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As United States' military operations in Afghanistan wind down, Karl Rahder has been working tirelessly from his home in suburban Chicago to save the life of a man halfway around the world.

Rahder, who worked as an election observer in Afghanistan in 2010 and again in 2014, says the American presence in the country over the last two decades would have been impossible without the help of loyal Afghan workers, and that one of his translators now risks death as a resurgent Taliban takes hold.

"They're irreplaceable," Rahder told NBC5. "I mean the United States obviously doesn't have the sort of personnel resources to supply translators to people like---not just me, a civilian, but for the military!"

Indeed, there are estimates that some 18,000 Afghan nationals are now awaiting what are known as Special Immigrant Visas, a ticket out of what many fear could become a collapsing Afghanistan as American forces withdraw. You can also add another 54,000 family members, who are expected to qualify.

"These people need to know that they can come to the United States to re-establish themselves in a secure environment, bringing their families with them," Rahder said. "Because they are certainly anything but secure if they remain in Afghanistan."

Rahder is especially worried about the man who worked as his translator and had received several visa denials. He said he believes his translator is now in "significant jeopardy", and like others, had a right to expect America to have his back.

"I think yes, the vast majority understood, 'we will take care of you, because you took care of us,'" he said.

When NBC5 contacted Rahder's Afghan friend this week, that man, who asked that we refer to him only as Aram, said he believes the danger is real, and that the situation in his country is only growing more chaotic.

"They hate us more than the American soldiers," he said. "Because they think that we are the traitors, that worked with American armed forces."

A measure passed by Congress last week would waive a requirement for applicants to undergo medical exams in Afghanistan, allowing them to do so after their departure. President Joseph Biden has said he supports the idea of evacuating visa applicants to areas like Guam, as their paperwork is processed, but no formal plan has been announced.

In a recent hearing in the House Armed Services Commitee, Massachusetts congressman Seth Moulton put it bluntly to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"We have 80 days, until our formal withdrawal date, it takes 800 days or more to process a Special Immigrant Visa," Moulton said. "This much is certain---the Taliban will kill them if they can."

Milley responded that the U.S. military had adequate capability to do whatever is requested by the President.

"And I consider it a moral imperative to take care of those who have served along our side," Milley said.

Back in Illinois, Rahder expressed frustration that requests for help from Sen. Tammy Duckworth's office in expediting his translator's paperwork had fallen flat. He said he had been in conversations with a Duckworth representative who promised to pursue the matter in April, but that nothing came of those discussions.

"I've given up," he said. "I have heard nothing from Senator Duckworth's office."

A Duckworth spokesman could not explain to NBC5 what had happened with Rahder's request for help, but with the American presence in Afghanistan rapidly winding down, Rahder said he hoped everyone realized that time was growing short, and he suggested that thousands in Afghanistan were looking to the United States for help.

"As the Taliban in coming months can look forward to all but complete control of the government, I think they have very real legitimate reasons to be fearful."

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