Denied American Visas, These Afghans Were Forced To Make a Perilous Escape After Helping U.S. Troops for Years

Unable to tap into the immigration pathway for Afghan helpers, these men and their families opted to flee elsewhere.


August 31 will mark the end of U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden announced today. That departure will also include thousands of Afghans who have helped the U.S. military over the years as interpreters, as engineers, and in other critical roles. "There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose," Biden said. "We will stand with you, just as you stood with us."

The president's announcement puts a long-awaited exclamation point on the conversation about the fate of those Afghan helpers. The immigration pathway established to serve Afghans who assisted American forces is called the special immigrant visa (SIV). Its intensive 14-step application, its strict qualification requirements, and human errors during processing have kept many long-serving Afghans from taking advantage of the opportunity supposedly afforded to them in return for "faithful and valuable service to the U.S. government."

Thanks to their connections to the U.S., these Afghans face grave risks in their home country. With the American option looking unlikely, many are fleeing to other countries instead, fearing murder at the hands of the Taliban. Two men who were unable to get visas through the SIV program have told Reason the stories of their dangerous escapes from Afghanistan.

Habibullah started working with the U.S. Army in 2009 as an occupational health and safety manager, a position that took him to some of the most dangerous districts of Afghanistan. In 2019, the Taliban took notice of his work and began threatening his life. Having worked for the U.S. forces for almost 10 years, Habibullah decided to apply for an SIV. All his application materials were in order apart from the requisite letter of recommendation from a supervisor.

"Everything was normal" in Afghanistan until then, he explains, saying he had no plans to leave. "So I did not request any recommendation from my supervisors." But as the U.S. withdrawal approached, the Taliban started seizing more territory and tensions escalated. Unfortunately, Habibullah's supervisors had "already left the country" by the time the situation in Afghanistan pushed him to look for a way out. He wrote to his former supervisors asking for help but received no response.

That left his escape options limited. He and his family tried Turkey, but they were denied visas. They resolved to make the trip illegally, fearing they'd be killed by the Taliban if they stayed.

One of Habibullah's friends introduced him to a man who coordinated illegal passage to Turkey. He charged the equivalent of $1,500 per head for the journey—$9,000 total for Habibullah's family to make it out. Their journey took three miserable weeks. Smugglers crammed 20 passengers into cars intended for just five to seven people. There was no water or food for up to 15 hours every day. Drivers raced across rough terrain out of fear they'd be caught by immigration authorities.

His children "start crying" when the journey comes up in conversation, says Habibullah. They recall marching for several days through mountains, deserts, and forests.

The smugglers kept them captive for 10 days until the family agreed to pay $2,400 in addition to the agreed-upon $9,000, threatening to kill them otherwise. They stole their mobile phones, jewelry, watches, and anything else of value. When Habibullah's family finally reached Turkey, they couldn't walk properly for "weeks and months" because of the brutal journey. Their bloodied socks stuck to their feet. Even so, it could've been worse. Habibullah remembers seeing several deceased immigrants along the route through Iran, their bodies neglected by the authorities.

Habibullah couldn't work in Turkey, since he and his family had come without papers. He returned to Afghanistan to make money for his family and apply for a visa. He received it and is now legally present in the country, though his wife and children are not and he does not have a work permit. His four young children cannot go to school. "I am trying to find any chance to move to USA for my kids' future," he says. His visa expires soon, leaving his future unwritten.

Saberi worked as a contractor for a U.S. company from 2010–12 under a supervisor from New Zealand. For security reasons, he asked that Reason not reveal the exact country he and his family have settled in—a country that he criticizes for political repression, limitations on the press, and a lack of compassion for his situation. After applying for an SIV in 2014, he learned that his letter of support could not come from his foreign supervisor, even though they had both worked for an American organization. His immigration case fell apart.

Then his safety in Afghanistan became deeply compromised. Saberi had taken up work as a freelance reporter for a news agency, and he wrote an article about an Afghan policewoman who had been raped by two of her commanders. According to Saberi, those two officers were powerful and well-connected and threatened to kill him if the report led to their conviction. He wasn't willing to chance it. About three months ago, before a verdict was finalized, he decided to leave the country, fearing he and his family could be killed—either by the two officers or by the Taliban. 

With the U.S. visa option out of reach, Saberi first tried to escape to Turkey. Like Habibullah, he paid dearly to be smuggled into the country. But the smugglers he hired kidnapped him and his family. Blackmailed for $3,000 in order to be freed and still far from Turkey, Saberi settled in another country, now penniless and forced to work a simple job despite his highly qualified background. He filed a complaint against the thieves but the police did not take it seriously, he says.

When asked what life is like for his wife and young children in their new country, Saberi says: "It is really bad and tough for them."

Both men dream of what they would do if given the chance to immigrate to the U.S. Saberi would like to continue his studies of law and become an attorney. He dreams of giving his family a chance "to be a part of the greatest nation of the world," helping his kids "grow in a better culture." Habibullah runs an Afghan handmade rug business that he operates online, but he wishes he could bring it to the U.S., since that's where most of his clients are. "USA is land of opportunities," he says. "So I can continue my business easily." He too wants to go the distance for his kids: "Their future will be bright and safe from everything." He writes, "I wish I could come to USA, I am trying every possible way."

Despite their extreme challenges, neither man expresses regret for assisting the Americans or resentment that they've been unable to obtain visas. Habibullah says he was "really proud" to work with U.S. forces and calls his years of service a "golden time for me and for our country." He says he'd be lucky—and happy—to work with the Americans once more. "We are really thankful to all the nations who support us and our country," he stresses. Saberi likewise speaks of the American "big heart officers," who he calls "great people."

The SIV program desperately needs reform. Without it, Afghan interpreters and contractors with ties to the U.S. could suffer a bloodbath. In the meantime, the cases of Habibullah and Saberi are important reminders that even loyal allies may find themselves barred from the visa pathway established as a reward for risky service.

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  1. “The mission was accomplished in that we got Osama bin Laden and terrorism is not emanating from that part of the world” – Biden wapo article quote

    Biden is a liar and a fraud. He was against the bin Laden raid, and terrorism continued long after in the region despite that. Democrats failures compound.

    1. Trump had 4 years in which to pull out of there, and failed to do so. He was Commander in Chief of the USA armed forces. Did the Demon-Crats mind-control him during that time, or what?

      1. The Obama-Biden administration had 8 years to do so. How’d that work out again?

        1. The Obama-Biden administration blew it when they FAILED to pull out right after assassinating Bin Laden… “Mission accomplished”, lesson taught, now we’re outta here! IF they had had any sense…

          Trump saw these 8 years of failure, and piled another 4 years of failure right on top of it. NO lessons learned! What was Trump’s excuse? Besides being busy applying orange bronzer to his skin?

          1. Trump’s exit date was prior to Biden’s.

            1. Trump did NOT get us out! Biden is finally getting us out!

              “Anti-gravity will be invented after I leave office!” (See my 5-year plan).

              All Hail MEEEE; thank MEEEE for the invention of Anti-Graviyt!

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      2. Of course it was the Democrats’ fault. To say otherwise is to criticize Trump, and only communists do that.

      3. Yeah, the fucking loonies here will either twist this into somehow being Trump’s accomplishment or go back to being the neocons they were before Trump.

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      5. Trump started the withdrawal glad it is finally being completed.

  2. The mission was accomplished in that we got Osama bin Laden and terrorism is not emanating from that part of the world” – Biden wapo article quote

    Biden is a liar and a fraud. He was against the bin Laden raid, and terrorism continued long after in the region despite that. Democrats failures compound.

  3. Biden can help them out. He voted for the Afghanistan invasion. He’ll bring the refugees here and put them in cages like the other folks from foreign lands.

  4. Biden just announced that the thousands of interpreters who worked for the United States will be flown to third party countries by the U.S. to await the processing of their visas before the United States leaves entirely. No one will be forced to go if they don’t want, but if they want to wait for their visas in third party countries, the U.S. will move them there. I don’t know where they’re going, but I think that’s probably the right thing to do.

    Just to show how objective I am, Biden following through on the Afghanistan pullout is absolutely approved by your truly. I doubt Biden would have negotiated with the Taliban when Trump did, in February of 2020), and I doubt we would be pulling out now if it weren’t for all the hard work the Trump administration did to get us out. And Biden sure looked like he was going to screw it up when he failed to pull out by the end of April.

    I see this as like Bill Clinton managing not to screw up Bush Sr.’s hard work in putting together NAFTA and GATT (Uruguay round). Clinton didn’t put any of those deals together, but he deserves credit for not fucking it up–and so does Biden.

    Incidentally, the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban will probably be a bloody nightmare for the people left behind–but I think it’s in the best interests of the American people to leave anyway.

    The legitimate purpose of the American military is to protect our Constitution and our rights from foreign threats, and if the Taliban ever coordinates an attack against the United States with our enemies again, we should bomb them from orbit rather than put troops on the ground. Occupation was the merciful option. We’ve nuked others before. No mercy next time, so don’t let there be a next time.

    1. The administration has yet to determine where translators would be moved while they await approval to enter the U.S. “It is likely to be a mix of third countries and U.S. territory,” a senior administration official said. “For now this is very much in progress.”

      Among places the U.S. is considering are Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as well as Guam, officials said. The translators moved out of Afghanistan could be in those countries for years as they await a valid U.S. visa.”

      Um . . . focusing on the victims when you’re trying to complete a pullout from a quagmire is the road to hell. You might just as well invite progressive neocons to object to Biden pulling out for their own reasons. They’re already saying that we shouldn’t pull out until the Islamic fundamentalists that run the Taliban agree to grant and protect equal rights for women. We can’t leave until the feminists win? If you can’t pull out until the Taliban becomes feminist, then you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave Afghanistan.

      1. He will probably send them to Guantanamo while they await visas.

    2. I’ll take the cautiously optimistic stance on this, Biden is an inveterate liar, his administration follows his lead. There is also little reason to bring the wrong sort of ethnic minorities here, from the DNC perspective. These are not folks likely to immediately begin suckling on the government teat and voting grievance/resentment.

  5. As for the people of Afghanistan, there can never be peace and security in Afghanistan so long as the United States maintains a presence there, and the sooner we see peace and security in Afghanistan, the sooner the Taliban dominated government of Afghanistan will realize that their future will only be secured by selling their vast mineral resources to China.

    When the fanatical Muslim armies of the 7th century overran what is now modern Iraq and Iran, they had a conundrum about what to do with the Zoroastrians they found there. They didn’t worship the God of Abraham, so they were not “people of the book”. You know what happens to people who aren’t people of the book?

    On the other hand, if they were all put to the sword, who would pay taxes to support the Muslim armies and their conquests? In the end, the Zoroastrians were declared “people of the [a] book” because although they didn’t believe in the Old Testament, they had “a” book (the Avesta)! No, you’re not allowed to convert to Islam. If all you Zoroastrians converted to Islam, who would pay the tax?

    “Mass conversions were neither desired nor allowed, at least in the first few centuries of Arab rule.”

    Even fundamentalist Muslim fanatics eventually had to make their ideology bow to the power of economics. If only the progressive fanatics of today were anywhere near as pragmatic as the Muslim armies of the 7th century. We’ll see the Taliban putting bacon on their cheeseburgers before we see ideologically rigid progressives accept the basic tenets of economics. Progressivism is a maladaptation.

    1. Read about the trillions they have in rare earth metals. But no infrastructure to extract and refine. As you stated, that will be for China to figure out.


        China seeks Pakistan’s help in stabilising Afghanistan after US troop withdrawal
        Foreign Minister Wang Yi urges Islamabad to ‘defend regional peace together’ in speech to mark 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations
        Beijing also hopes to increase Afghanistan’s role in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

        SQRLSY back now… Yes, China is next-up in line in the “Graveyard of Empires”! They just MIGHT succeed, where we failed! The Han Chinese may not be so reluctant to kill some endlessly feuding backwoods goat-fuckers whenever they get in the way!

        1. I think you’re missing the point.

          The Taliban doesn’t need China to invade. They don’t need Chinese help in putting down their enemies either.

          China just needs the Taliban to secure the country and stop being the insurgency themselves.

          If China “invades” Afghanistan, it will be an invasion of investors to write checks and build highways, trains, and mining infrastructure.

          China has been doing the same thing all over the world for decades now. China coming into Afghanistan will be good for Afghanistan, good for the Taliban, and good for American security. That’s why we should have left long ago.


            Militias in Afghanistan’s north are taking up the fight against the Taliban

            (Only 1 link per post, so… From NY Times, Shiite “Hazaras” are arming against the Taliban also)

            Attacked and Vulnerable, Some Afghans Are Forming Their Own Armies
            With U.S. troops leaving, the Taliban advancing, and a steady collapse of security force bases and outposts, the Hazara and other ethnic groups in Afghanistan are raising militias.

            The Taliban smoothing it ALL over for China to come in? Ha! The Taliban will be fighting from now till infinity! Because the Taliban can NOT find it in their hearts to play nice, and share power! China (if they want these minerals) will inevitably have to play “goon squad” to the Taliban, to maintain Taliban power!

            1. You’re loopy.

              The Taliban will overwhelm the opposition not long after we leave, and when the security situation is resolved and stable, they’ll be looking for ways to grow their economy–just like every other regime in the history of the world. When China comes offering to invest billions in their stable country, they’re not going to turn them away.

              And the idea that China would go in an conquer Afghanistan militarily when they can let economics do their fighting for them is just childish and stupid. The idea that any government can decide to not be subject to the laws of economics is childish, stupid, and progressive. Do you or do you not understand that our presence in Afghanistan and our support for the government in Kabul was the primary source of instability–so long as we were there? When the Kabul government and the last of the opposition warlords fall, the country will stabilize.

              It’ll be like in South Vietnam. First there will be a bloodbath, and then there will be stabilization. For goodness’ sake, even the communist ideologues of China, Vietnam, and the Soviet Union had to bow to the laws of economics eventually.


              Just because you progressives are more ideologically rigid than Lenin, doesn’t mean Islamic fundamentalists like the Taliban are as dumb as American progressives.

              1. they’ll be looking for ways to grow their economy–just like every other regime in the history of the world

                You sure about that? They seem to be all about their religion, which prohibits interest. It’s difficult to have a capitalist economy without banks charging rent on borrowed money.

              2. Why were the British, the Soviets, and the Americans NOT able to apply these magical laws of economics to pacify the goat-fuckers over there? ENDLESS ethnic and religious (and other power-pig) fighting over there MIGHT have something to do with it! (And before them, the Persians, the Greek-Macedonians, etc., in the “Graveyard of Empires” (a name well earned)).

                What “secret sauce” will the Chinese apply that all of the others have missed? Keep in mind that the majority Han Chinese piss other people off ALL of the time with their smug superiority! Do they use genteel economics, or brute force and threats, against those who contest the “Sea of China”? Against the Uighurs, and the people of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet?

                Han Chinese chauvinism is well known! … They WILL piss off the Afghans, and there WILL be endless fighting!

                1. I think the idea is that the Chinese will bring investment while staying out of politics. It might work. I doubt it though.

                2. “Why were the British, the Soviets, and the Americans NOT able to apply these magical laws of economics to pacify the goat-fuckers over there?”

                  If you can’t tell the difference between invading and occupying a country with a foreign army, on the one hand, and the local population taking control of the county and accepting investment from the Chinese, on the other, it’s probably because you’re loopy, ignorant, or stupid.

                  Are you really so far gone that you can’t tell the difference between the Soviet Union invading their country and a local government of Afghans inviting the Chinese to invest in their country?

                  Are you drunk or high?

                  How can you say stupid shit like this and expect people not to make fun of you?

                  1. “…a local government of Afghans inviting the Chinese to invest in their country…”

                    That pre-supposes that the Afghans will stop their endless fighting between 375 power-pig warlords, and unify! Heck, in the supposedly unified USA, we can’t even build an oil pipeline without endless protests and obstruction from eco-freaks and a bunch of Indian (ooops, I mean, Native American) tribes! WHY would things be different over there, especially in view of the Han Chinese tendency to piss everyone else off?


                    I read a whole book about this! They think that their shit doesn’t stink, and they piss everyone off, generally, with their smug ways, with “Belt and Road”, in other nations!

                    Again, if the Chinese are going to be such a smashing success over there, WHY has NO ONE ever done it before?

                    PS, did the Han Chinese learn their smug ways from YOU, perhaps?

                3. The Chinese won’t be going there in tanks.

                  1. You mean, just like… … in Tiananmen Square, perhaps? They are just TOO genteel to use tanks, amIright?

                    1. The issue isn’t whether they are capable of and willing to use force. Tanks aren’t the only tool in the box and they happen to be the incorrect one for what the Chinese want.
                      More strawcastic sputtering.

                  2. What kind of stupid mind would think that could happen now?

                    The Chinese are working with local governments all over the world, on mineral extraction, but they want to invade and occupy Afghanistan–so they can mine it? That idea itself is absurd and ridiculous.

                    On top of that, though, what kind of childish mind assumes the Chinese would want to invade and occupy Afghanistan?!

                    Have you ever seen The Mike Tyson Mysteries? Some people think squirrely is sarcasmic. I suspect he’s Mike Tyson.

                    1. The Americans were doing a reasonably good job of engaging in peaceful free or semi-free trade worldwide, with many nations, and then suddenly the USA decided to invade and occupy Afghanistan, Iraq, and parts of Syria. What kind of childish mind would think that Americans would do such wasteful, counterproductive, and utterly foolish things?

                      Mature and thoughtful minds KNOW that good, benevolent nations NEVER do such wasteful and foolish things! And these thoughtful minds trust in the benevolence and wisdom of the Chinese, since the Chinese have SOOOO thoroughly demonstrated their genteel benevolence! Even better than the Americans!

                    2. You missed the plot.

                    3. Ken and Chumpy Chump are both missing the obvious…

                      Expert predicts failure as China eyes a move into Afghanistan: ‘This is going to be fun to watch’
                      ‘I would love to see China get mired into Afghanistan,’ said Gordon Chang

                      Out-take from there…

                      Chang expressed his doubts, saying, “Although [the Chinese] are vicious, I don’t think that they’re as vicious as the elements that they’re going to face.”

                      “They’ve got a great relationship with the Taliban, but the Taliban are not the only element in Afghan society. There are a lot of militants with very different interests,” he observed. “India can play these groups against China in Afghanistan, bedevil the Chinese, bog them down.”

        2. These posts are better than when you use the sarcasmic account.

          1. Go masterbait in private. That’s gross.

              1. JesseAz thinks that me and squirrely posting on the same thread is proof that we’re the same person. He’s also a certified troll and a moron. You really want to be like him?

                1. I wanna be like Mike.

                  1. Well you’re eating the wrong cereal for starters.

      2. And everywhere China goes in the world to extract raw materials, they want stability. They’re not investing billions in extracting your mineral wealth if you keep attacking each other, bombing each other, making their roads, bridges, and railways unpredictable, etc., etc.

        It’s like a basic rule of civilization growing with mining claims. Once they found the Comstock lode in Nevada, the mining and railroad interests couldn’t get in there fast enough–except for the lawlessness. First thing you need is a stable government to protect mining claims, railroad investments, etc. Nevada became a state almost as fast as they could after they found the Comstock lode.

        Let’s hope the Taliban is smart enough to figure it out. Ultimately, they can only have a stable government with a growing economy, and there’s a lot of money to be made as the government that protects the flow of high value mineral resources to Chinese factories. With rare earth minerals, the Taliban may be ascendant even as Saudi’s (Al Qaeda’s enemies’) oil wealth becomes less important to China.

        The reason Nevada came into the Union for the North is because all those railroad and mining interests wanted to send those mineral resources to factories–and the factories were in the industrialized North. If they can get their security situation resolved, good things could happen in Afghanistan. And when young guys have a good future in something other than being a Jihadi, they will be drawn to that future.

        1. USA assimilated Nevada for minerals etc. … China might assimilate Afghanistan (or try to)! Never underestimate arrogance… XYZ nations often think, “where all others have failed, WEEE can succeed!”

          Death toll soars to 50 in bombing of girls school in Kabul, targeting ethnic Hazaras

          Sounds like the Taliban know how to bring peace and stability! Sure, they will bring peace and stability for that “belt and road”!

  6. The Chinese aren’t ones to expand their culture to others. If they take steps to expand into Afghanistan and run into trouble I have no doubt the reprisals will be brutal and barely covered by the media. The Taliban can not look for military assistance from the Russians or the US and China will have Pakistan on a tight leash.

    1. Here’s a world map of Chinese controlled mining operations.

      They’re all over Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America. They’re even in Canada. They haven’t invaded any of those places, and there’s no good reason why they would want to invade Afghanistan.

      Wars are expensive, destructive, and not conducive to mining operations and reliable transport. In the developing world, on the other hand, a little bit of money can buy a whole lot of important resources. Building some bridges, railroads, etc. so you can transport what you mine back to China makes a lot more sense than an expensive invasion and occupation.

      The reason the Soviets invaded was because they were desperate to expand their economy, and that wasn’t about to happen with central planning. Go conquer a resource rich country, and maybe you can take what they got. Now you’re economy has expanded! The Soviets sure as hell weren’t about to use their entrepreneurial class to invest in the development of these countries–since they didn’t have one.

      China doesn’t have that problem. If the Taliban can guarantee the security of their mines and their ability to transport what they extract reliably, the Chinese will be happy to build all the infrastructure they need to mine and transport those resources. And the Taliban will be desperate for foreign direct investment.

      The Chinese have built similar infrastructure projects all over the world for the same reason–resource extraction–especially in Africa. All they ask is that you keep the country stable and guarantee the safety of their workers. If the Taliban can do that, given their mineral wealth and proximity to China, the Chinese will be happy to invest in Afghan infrastructure.

      Incidentally, this was one of the major goals in bringing China into the WTO, and it worked. Before they abandoned central planning, they financed communist insurgencies all over the developing world. Nowadays, when you hear someone talk about Maoist rebels in Peru or Africa, they’re just talking about the group’s ideology rather than their funding. Once China joined the WTO, their interests were in stabilizing the developing world to make it safe for resource extraction–rather than fomenting communist revolution.

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  10. The Taliban can not look for military assistance from the Russians or the US and China will have Pakistan on a tight leash.

  11. Boo f—ing hoo! They’ve had several months to plan and implement their escape. If they won’t help themselves, I certainly won’t. Last week 1000 Afghan troops beat feet for Tajikistan. These Afghan traitors should have hitched a ride with them

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