From a riverside home outside the North Cascades valley town of Darrington, Jon Allen fields desperate pleas for help as the Taliban takes city after city in Afghanistan. They appear as Facebook Instant Messages on his computer screen deep into these August nights.
Allen, 64, a retired Defense Department civilian employee, spent six tumultuous years helping supervise a massive effort to maintain a far-flung network of Afghan military bases.
The messages he’s getting now come from Afghan workers who helped operate these bases. They ask for guidance, encouragement and, most urgently, letters of recommendation that are vital to obtain special immigration visas that would allow them to resettle in America.
Before dawn Tuesday, the message is from Eshan, of Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital city of Balkh Province in northern Afghanistan, where the Taliban are rapidly advancing.
“They are searching (for) me … if they find me, they will cut my head,” writes Eshan, who says he spent four years — from 2009 to 2013 — employed by the U.S. contractor Contrack International in the base-building effort overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “We don’t want (to) die.”
The message was accompanied by a video of Eshan’s young son frightened by the sound of gunfire outside his home.
Such messages give Allen an unsettling window into the angst of thousands of Afghans who worked for the U.S. government — not only interpreters but also security personnel, electricians, carpenters and many other trades — who are increasingly fearful of their fate in a homeland where the Taliban are threatening a takeover. They also show the difficulties that former Afghan workers for U.S. government contractors can have in securing all the documents required for the State Department to begin processing the special immigration visas.
For Allen, the urgency for visa approvals grows by the day.
The Taliban’s sweeping military gains of recent days have increased the threat that Kabul could fall under their control. The State Department on Friday announced a partial evacuation of personnel from the U.S. embassy there, and the Defense Department announced that some 3,000 Marines and Army troops would be dispatched to the city’s international airport to help secure its operations.
“This is happening so fast. I am used to nothing happening fast in Afghanistan. This is happening jaw-dropping fast, and it scares the hell out of me,” Allen said. “These people risked their lives on a daily basis … for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.”
Under the Special Immigrant Visa program, Afghans who were employed “on behalf of the U.S. government” for at least two years are eligible to apply for resettlement in the United States with family members. Since 2014, more than 26,000 visas have been issued under that program, and the U.S. earlier in the summer announced plans to airlift up to 50,000 Afghans and family members who would be eligible for the visas.
To start the review process, people must supply a letter from a human resources department confirming employment, a letter describing the threat they face and a letter from a direct supervisor, according to the instructions posted on the State Department website.
The fate of former U.S. contract employees if they remain in Afghanistan is uncertain. Some Taliban officials have suggested they would not be subject to retribution. But there are reports, denied by Taliban officials, that some of these workers have been slain by front-line Afghan fighters.
“Escalating Taliban violence, including executions of surrendered Afghan troops, shows a lack of respect for #HumanRights. Don’t erase Afghanistan’s human rights gains of the last 20 years,” declared a Thursday Tweet from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Allen’s six years of service in Afghanistan began in 2007 and were spread out over a decade. He was drawn again and again to return to work for the Army Corps of Engineers as it contracted with Contrack. He said these years, which included 12 months as a deputy chief of operations and maintenance branch, were filled with some of the most exhilarating experiences and some of the most “absolute dismal.”
Allen said he was ready to forget about Afghanistan as he sold his home in Mukilteo and in 2017 moved to his rural home outside Darrington. In recent weeks, he feels like he is being dragged back to the southwest Asian nation by the powers of social media when a post he made on a Facebook page for former Contrack employees brought an avalanche of messages.
Allen is concerned the Taliban may be monitoring the page. So he insists that all communication he receives from Afghanistan come via private messages.
Some of the messages he has received indicate that former Contrack employees have had to leave their residences out of fear of being taken by the Taliban. And one message he received Friday from an Afghan in Mazar-i-Sharif reported that the Taliban had begun to check homes, and they were on the lookout for former U.S. government employees.
Messages seeking help also are flooding into the human resources department of Contrack Watts, the new name for the Virginia-based contractor that employed thousands of Afghans as it received nearly $2 billion in Defense Department contracts. The company is receiving about 70 requests per day for employment verification from former Afghan employees — an increase from the roughly 30 requests a month the company received in recent years.
“It is heartbreaking,” said Krista Robinson, Contrack’s human resources director.
Contrack has eight employees in its human resources department, and up to six of them have been diverted to employment verification work, and more help is being requested from other areas of the company.
Robinson said her department is able to check company records to confirm employment, and on Thursday, as she worked past midnight, she finished 30 verification letters to send back to former Afghan employees.
Her department cannot write the letters of recommendation. They must be written by direct supervisors, and if those people are not U.S. citizens, then they should be co-signed by a U.S. citizen “who is responsible for the contract,” according to State Department rules posted online.
One of those supervisors is Scott Grasser, a southern California resident, who worked for Contrack in security from 2004 to 2011 and then returned for another gig as a Contrack consultant. During the past two years, he said his letters have helped bring at least 17 former workers and their families to the U.S. in an application process that can take six months or more.
Allen says it has been difficult to find many of the direct supervisors because Contrack hired many foreign nationals from South Africa and other nations. So he is reaching out via social media to contact some of these people to see if they can write letters he can co-sign. He is also in contact with Contrack to help screen out any fraudulent requests for help.
This past week, he has been tuning his sleep schedule to be awake on Afghanistan time to respond to messages soon after they arrive.
“This is a long and lengthy process,” Allen said. “The fact is that the clock is ticking, and we simply do not have the time.”