Abdullah calls in the dead of night. “The Taliban are just fifteen miles away,” the former translator for coalition forces says. “They will kill me and my family.”
“For almost two weeks, we didn’t sleep a single night,” he continues. “There were huge firefights all around us.”
Abdullah, who spoke on the condition of anonymity over fears for his safety, is one of the thousands of Afghans who worked with international forces as translators. Now, they say their lives are in danger, as foreign troops withdraw rapidly from the country.
The United States is just weeks away from ending its longest war. U.S. President Biden has ordered all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of August. This week it was announced that Gen. Austin Scott Miller, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, was stepping down, marking one of the last steps in the formal U.S. withdrawal.
It’s a war that began in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks, when a U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan to depose a Taliban regime that had controlled the country since 1996, and was accused of providing shelter to al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. The Taliban, mainly comprising fundamental Islamists, were defeated militarily but later regrouped and launched an insurgency against the new, Western-backed government in the country. At least 200,000 people have died since.
While the war in Afghanistan may be coming to an end for international troops, for Afghans, there’s no end in sight. The Taliban have seized dozens of districts over the past few weeks and are now thought to either control or contest around half the country. Last week they attacked a provincial capital, Qala-e-Naw, in northern Afghanistan. Reports suggest the attack was eventually repulsed after heavy fighting.
Over the course of the 20-year conflict, coalition troops were aided by thousands of locally employed contractors, or LECs, hundreds of whom remain in Afghanistan. But facing a seemingly unstoppable Taliban advance, many are saying their lives are now at risk.
Abdullah worked as a translator in Helmand province.
“The situation is very critical,” he told VICE World News. “There is no safe place for us.”
The Taliban recently released a statement, in which they claimed to “not pose a threat” to Afghans who had worked with the coalition.
The group urged translators to “express their regret for their past and not take such a path in the future, which is considered treason against Islam and the country.”
But Abdullah is in no doubt over what they’d do if he’s caught. “For the Taliban, it doesn’t matter what you did,” he says. “They won’t leave us alive. They will kill us like animals.”
It’s a fear he knows all too well: His brother was recently killed by the Taliban.
In April, the UK launched a new scheme offering former LECs asylum. Given the heightened danger in Afghanistan amid the coalition withdrawal, it replaced an older scheme and aimed to make the asylum process easier. It came as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the vast majority of British soldiers stationed in Afghanistan had returned home.
But Afghans who were dismissed from their jobs for disciplinary breaches are ineligible under the new scheme. Abdullah’s contract was terminated after a commander claimed hashish was found in his room—something that he denies. Now, he says, he is stranded in northern Afghanistan.
To Abdullah, his six years of service came with incredible cost, both physical and psychological. In a photo shared with VICE World News, he showed the injuries he sustained in a suicide bombing attack last year. He doubts whether he was the attack’s intended target, but he doesn’t know for certain. All that’s certain is that nowhere is safe.
“I was recently in Kabul,” he said. “Even Kabul is not safe; the Taliban have already infiltrated the civilian population in the suburbs.”
“We were here for the British forces. We were very important for them. But they have left me for their enemies.”
Despite the Taliban advance, and growing fears of an all-out civil war in the country, the foreign withdrawal is not slowing down. Last weekend, Afghan soldiers woke to find Bagram Air Base, the once-sprawling facility at the centre of the Western intervention in the country, deserted. The Pentagon has since said the withdrawal is 90 percent complete.
According to the Sulha Alliance, a UK-based organisation that advocates for the rights of former interpreters, up to 35 percent of Afghans had their contracts terminated for discipline breaches.
Maajid, who spoke on the condition of anonymity over fears for his safety, was a translator between 2009 and 2011. He says he regularly accompanied soldiers on patrols of the front line. “We had a battle every day,” he says. “We had a mission every day… we were between death and life, every day.”
After two years, Maajid, like Abdullah, lost his job, after getting into a physical altercation with a fellow interpreter. Maajid claims the incident occurred after he refused to give his colleague a can of Pepsi. That cost him his job—and he returned home to Afghanistan’s eastern Laghman Province. But not for long.
“My tribe passed information to the Taliban,” he says. “They said I was an interpreter in Helmand Province… when we heard the information, we came to Kabul, and that saved me, my life.”
Now, Maajid says that even Kabul isn’t safe. “The situation is getting worse day by day,” he said. “We can’t go outside… we don’t have life. This is life in a prison.”
“I did an honest job for them,” he says, several times over the phone. “I don’t know what I should do.”
“Nobody cares about me. The British embassy doesn’t care. No one.”
In the U.S., the LEC issue has encouraged a rare show of bipartisan unity. Politicians are calling for an evacuation policy for the thousands of interpreters left in Afghanistan. A key issue is that Afghans who served for less than two years are not eligible for asylum in the U.S., leaving hundreds without a claim, even if they served coalition troops for 23 months.
Last week, the U.S. announced plans to relocate hundreds of former interpreters out of Afghanistan, where their claims can be processed in safety; although it could be a case of too little, too late, for those stuck in contested areas, with rapidly decreasing military support. On Thursday, Canada said it will begin to evacuate former staff from the country as it withdraws its remaining forces.
And for some, getting out of Afghanistan is only half the struggle. Mahmoud —not his real name—lives in New Delhi. Despite leaving Afghanistan, he still fears potential Taliban reprisals against himself, or his family back home. He was ineligible for the UK’s previous asylum scheme for Afghans, and so fled the country for India, after his family was repeatedly questioned by a suspected informer for the Taliban in 2013. Living in New Dehli, as a Muslim refugee, his situation is incredibly hard. “I can’t buy a SIM card, I can’t open a bank account,” he told VICE World News, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he fears for his safety. “I will never be a citizen of this country.”
Yet he can’t come to the UK, despite being eligible for the new asylum scheme, as he has already claimed refugee status in a third country.
“I couldn’t attend my own marriage,” he says. “The British government is failing me unconditionally.” Before fleeing to India, a friend who had worked with American troops went missing. “His family reported it to the police: Our son is missing.”
“Finally they found their son in the well of their home,” he said. “His head was cut off… because his relatives came to know he was working with American forces.”
Responding to a VICE World News request for comment, a spokesperson for the UK’s Ministry of Defence said “every dismissal [of an LEC] was for a valid reason.”
“Those who were dismissed for the most serious offences, including those that constitute a crime in the UK, or would be a security concern, will not be eligible for relocation,” the spokesperson said.
Update 08/17/2021: The story has been updated to further anonymize sources.