The attack that unfolded Thursday at the Kabul airport was a brutal reminder of the risks surrounding the massive U.S. military organized airlift of U.S. citizens and Afghans out of Afghanistan now reaching its final days.
The bombing, claimed by the Islamic State group, killed dozens, including 13 U.S. troops. It unfolded as Afghans ignored warnings of terrorist threats to gather in front of airport gates in hopes of fleeing the country before the airlift’s current Aug. 31 deadline.
Three aid groups operating in Afghanistan with Northwest ties — PARSA, Mercy Corps and World Vision — report that all of their Afghan and U.S. staff workers appear to be safe.
“All aid groups are watching with alarm and deep concern for their own team members in Afghanistan, the communities they support and all Afghan civilians,” said Lynn Hector, spokesperson for Portland-based Mercy Corps. “Our commitment remains the same, now more than ever.”
Marnie Gustavson, executive director of PARSA, said the group’s 125 Kabul staff were warned not to go to the airport, and she is hoping most will elect to stay in Kabul to help with relaunching the aid work under the Taliban regime.
“They are scared and confused … It’s been a really hard 10 days” said Gustavson, who flew out of Kabul on Aug. 15 just as Taliban forces moved in. She is now working from her family home in Port Orchard.
For days, the airport has been crowded with Afghans desperate to flee to other nations before the airlift terminates.
But the operation may not end, according to State Department officials.
In briefings with reporters, State Department officials have said visa applications will continued to be processed after Aug. 31. They look to the Taliban to honor commitments to maintain a functioning airport and to continue to permit safe passage for Afghans who want to leave.
“What does not end when the military mission ends, is our commitment to at-risk Afghans,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in Monday.
Gustavson said some of her staff would like to secure a Priority 2 Special Immigrant Visa, that can be granted to those employed by U.S. aid agencies. But the visa process typically requires them to move first to another country, where they would likely reside for months while the application is reviewed.
The other option for these workers is to remain in Afghanistan as PARSA and other aid groups negotiate with the Taliban the terms of their renewed operations, including the rights of women to retain their jobs.
As of Thursday, more than 100,000 people — mostly Afghans — have been airlifted out of Kabul to the U.S. and other nations.
The airlift has been closely followed by the Afghan community in Washington that includes many who have arrived with an SIV, and are now hoping other family members can join them.
Wahidullah — who is being identified only by his first name to protect his family in Afghanistan — lives in Kirkland with his wife and children and came to the U.S. in 2019 after working for the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Army Special Forces for six years.
His sister, brother and mother have been living on the streets outside the Kabul Airport for nearly two weeks, he said. They sent him a video Thursday of the blasts .
Wahidullah said his family, who has also worked with the U.S. Embassy, has been targeted by the Taliban. They were forced to change homes regularly to avoid detection.
They say neighbors were killed by the Taliban and that staying in Kabul is not an option. His sister has a complete SIV application, except for a recommendation letter from a supervisor, who has not responded to any messages.
Wahidullah gets little sleep these days, worried each time he hears from his family that he will learn they have been hurt. His mother, in her sixties, tells him they are fine in an attempt to reassure him, he said.
Washington state is expected to play a significant role in the resettlement of Afghans.
Local and statewide organizations work to resettle Afghan refugees, including financial and housing assistance. Fourteen families were recently welcomed by Jewish Family Service in Seattle, and 60 new arrivals by the International Rescue Committee.
Gov. Jay Inslee sent a letter to Biden Thursday affirming Washington’s support for resettlement efforts, and calling on the administration to ensure support and services are readily available to Afghans arriving to the U.S.
“While you consider all ways to rapidly airlift tens of thousands of people, I hope that you work to ensure services are readily available without regard to visa status — including resettlement programming, work authorization, and financial assistance — and to mitigate the imposition of costs or fees onto these vulnerable individuals,” Inslee wrote.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, urged the Biden administration last week to welcome Afghan allies who were vetted, as SIV holders.
“As we mourn the loss of the Marines and civilians murdered in today’s cowardly terrorist attack in Kabul, my heart goes out to their loved ones and fellow service members,“ she said in a statement to The Seattle Times about the Kabul attack.
“It’s our job to stand by our service members when they come home to make sure they have the care and support they are owed.”
Seattle Times staff reporter Daisy Zavala contributed to this report.
Editors Note: This story has been updated to reflect new information from the Defense Department