US failure to help Afghans is worse than we thought

A new lawsuit alleges that some NGOs set up to help evacuate those who helped the United States in Afghanistan are just a series of scams.

Even now, more than a year after the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States continues to abdicate its responsibility of getting former Afghan partners out of the country, forcing them to turn to desperate measures. A new lawsuit reveals just how bad it’s gotten.

The nonprofit Save Our Allies alleges they were defrauded out of $735,128 by three different companies and individuals by failing to evacuate 197 Afghan refugees from Afghanistan (via Pakistan) to Qatar in early 2022. According to the complaint, it was a “classic scam” in which defendants “claimed that ‘the planes are prepared to fetch the refugees, if only Save Our Allies and others wired them more money immediately.”

Save Our Allies claims that one of the defendants, an advising firm in Florida called Ravenswood Group, told the NGO in a letter that it is “out of cash — and it is cash that is needed to get the lady to sing. Don’t worry, she will sing (soon) but we need more help as fast as possible.”

The complaint alleges that despite wiring hundreds of thousands of dollars to the defendants, they “never had any capability or intent to assist the refugees’ escape from Afghanistan.”

Save Our Allies was founded in August 2021 amid the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan. It’s one of several organizations set up by veterans to evacuate Afghan interpreters, engineers, and others who served alongside them.

Kevin Carroll, a partner at Hughes Hubbard & Reed, the law firm that filed the complaint, told Responsible Statecraft that “crisis situations bring out the best and the worst in people. 99 percent of people rally to try and help their fellow man, but some people will use that as an opportunity to make money.”

For the Afghan refugees stuck within the Taliban’s grasp, the Save Our Allies debacle is potentially life-threatening. Ahmad Feroz Bakhshi, an Afghan interpreter who served alongside the Marines, was supposed to be on the plane to Qatar. His attorney, David Laufman, told Responsible Statecraft that he and his family “were about to be exfiltrated from Pakistan to Qatar to bring them out of harm’s way to safety and a new life, only for it to fall apart due to this fraud. Now, the Taliban hunts for them in Pakistan and he remains in extreme jeopardy.” Laufman’s son served alongside Bakhshi and he is representing him pro-bono.

According to the complaint, these 197 refugees include both holders of and applicants for the Special Immigrant Visa, the decades-old immigration pathway set up to ensure the safety of interpreters, engineers, and others who assisted the U.S. military.

That program has moved slowly. A new report by the State Department’s Office of Inspector General found that in May of 2022, there were 325,000 unopened emails in the SIV application email box. As of August 9, there were upwards of 90,000 Afghans stuck in the backlog of the Special Immigrant Visa program.

The inefficiency of the Special Immigrant Visa program is forcing Afghans to turn toward alternative methods of reaching safety, such as Save Our Allies and other similar nonprofits. But ultimately, an NGO can’t supplant the work of a government that has a responsibility to reconcile with the consequences of a 20-year war.

“We are not a government. We cannot do what the U.S. government does,” said Nick Palmisciano, the Vice President of Save Our Allies. “My Whatsapp is inundated daily with dozens and sometimes hundreds of messages from people that have gotten my information from somebody that [Save Our Allies] has helped.”

Adam Weinstein, a Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute, said that the government’s abdication of responsibility in evacuating Afghan partners created a “Wild West” with all kinds of folks getting into the airlift business.

“The bottom line is the U.S. government dropped the ball on its commitment to get out former interpreters and some others at great risk of Taliban reprisals. The task then fell on a lot of well meaning groups and a few opportunistic ones too.”

In a statement to Responsible Statecraft, a State Department spokesperson appeared to reject the idea that the U.S. government was leaving the responsibility to private organizations. “The relocation of Afghans has been a historic whole-of-society effort made possible with partnerships across numerous federal agencies; state and local governments; non-profit organizations, including faith-based and veterans’ groups; the private sector; and local communities,” the statement read.

The spokesperson pointed to some improvements within the SIV program as evidence, namely transitioning to a long-term strategy without an end date and eliminating a duplicitous form. According to the State Department, removing this petition form “will shave a month of adjudication time and ease administrative burden on the visa applicant.” Out of a 14-step process, this form was only step number six.

Some are proposing going much further. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) recently published a detailed list of recommendations for improving the SIV program, which includes raising the visa cap, increasing staffing, and streamlining the application process.

But perhaps the most intriguing short-term solution was Shaheen’s plea for the Biden administration to start utilizing a statute that “requires that the Secretary of State ‘shall make a reasonable effort to provide protection or to immediately remove such aliens from Afghanistan’ should they be in imminent danger.” According to Shaheen “this provision has been underutilized and Afghans have suffered reprisal killings and violence without support from the U.S. government.”

Ukraine could serve as a precedent. Biden’s “United for Ukraine” program provides a pathway for Ukrainians at risk of violence to come to the United States. “The administration must extend the same protections to Afghans,” urged Shaheen.

Critics say Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to divert attention and resources away from Afghanistan.

“Save our Allies has been doing work in Ukraine and has been since February, so we believe in that mission,” Palmisciano said. “But I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that I was incredibly sad and at times overwhelmed by how willing the entire world is to help Ukraine and how unwilling the world is to even acknowledge Afghanistan.”

According to Palmisciano, Save Our Allies even had plans in place with an unnamed country that had agreed to take 1,000 Afghans. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Save Our Allies was told the Ukrainians would have priority over Afghans.

Currently, Afghan SIV applicants also have a more burdensome application process than Ukrainians, having to manually request that their case be transferred to another embassy.

To the thousands of Afghans in SIV-purgatory, including the 197 Afghans who were allegedly defrauded in the Save Our Allies complaint, government inaction has put their lives in jeopardy. Palmisciano knows this better than most; “Every once in a while, one of them is found (by the Taliban), and the men who find them occasionally enjoy sending images of their mutilated corpses via Whatsapp, after going through their phones to see who they’ve been working with.”

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