Former Afghan troops who worked with US military struggle to escape Taliban's reach

Six months since the end of the Afghanistan war, families are stuck in a dangerous limbo

US veteran Jayson Harpster poses for a photograph with Nabi and Kohee in Zabul Province
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For six months, Nabi and Kohee have been in hiding.

They share a two-bedroom apartment in Pakistan with their wives and nine children, who cannot go to school. Undocumented and unable to work, they have their groceries delivered to them once a week through a network of helpers.

They do not leave the house unless there is a medical emergency.

“It’s not ideal,” said Nabi, a former intelligence officer who tracked down Taliban fighters alongside US soldiers during the war in Afghanistan. “But it’s better than being dead.”

Taliban fighters in Kabul celebrate after the US pulled all its troops out of Afghanistan. AFP

Nabi knew he had to leave the country after his base in Helmand province was evacuated a few weeks before the fall of Kabul.

“On that helicopter ride, I got a true view of the strength and power the Taliban had gained, including access to US weapons,” he told The National. “I spent 20 years fighting them … they will never forgive or forget the people who opposed them.”

After the Taliban took Kabul on August 15, Nabi’s house was raided and incentives were offered to reveal his whereabouts, his neighbours said.

“It became apparent they were actively pursuing us … my families’ lives were at stake,” he said.

Nabi, who worked for the country’s National Directorate of Security, desperately tried to find seats for himself and his family on a plane out of the city, joining thousands of others who crowded Kabul airport during the final days of the US withdrawal.

He navigated Taliban checkpoints, was whipped twice in the process, and made a sign displaying the telephone number of a US veteran, Jayson Harpster, who said he was willing to vouch for him.

But the US Army would not listen.

At one point, Nabi was given a location where intelligence officers and their families could enter the airport, but when he arrived with his wife and five children, they were tear gassed by American soldiers.

“It was pure chaos … at that moment, I realised I would never get in,” Nabi said. “I spoke to my family and we agreed that even if we would die trying, we wouldn’t give up.”

A sign made by Nabi as he tried to enter Kabul airport

Nabi began working with Kohee, a member of the Afghan National Army whom he had met during his time serving in Zabul province, on a new escape plan.

Kohee and his family had also tried to enter the airport but were turned away. He has four children and a baby on the way.

Kohee's wife is Hazara, an ethnic group routinely persecuted by the Taliban. He feared for their safety as the militants marched into Kabul.

The National is not using the men's full names to protect their identity.

“The Taliban were threatening to kill us and take our young daughters and wives,” Kohee said.

“They were looking for people like us.”

The two families packed water and other essentials and boarded buses to the border with Pakistan. Walking through open sewage and piles of rubbish, they crossed under the cover of darkness.

Without documentation, they were turned away from Pakistan’s hotels and were unable to purchase active SIM cards. The families slept rough in the slums until Mr Harpster, the US veteran who had vouched for them in Kabul, arranged for a helper to pick them up and take them to a safe house.

“We are alive,” said Nabi, “but every day here, there is a fear of being caught and sent back to the Taliban.

“If we are deported, we will most certainly be killed, and even worse, our wives and daughters will be in their hands.

“We want our children to be able to seek an education and for once — just once — not live a life where they are in hiding or in fear of death.”

‘If we’re not successful, this will be on my conscience forever’

Inside the first-floor apartment of a Washington town house, Mr Harpster proudly displays his Bronze Star, which he earned for producing intelligence reports on the Taliban while being deployed in Zabul province.

The former sergeant who served twice in Afghanistan met Kohee and Nabi on his second deployment from 2011-2012.

“Nabi and Kohee were as much a part of that as I was … they were my partners in everything I did over there,” said Mr Harpster. “That ought to count for something … but instead, it’s a death sentence for them.”

Mr Harpster is one of many US veterans trying to bring their Afghan friends to safety following the end of the war. The three of them were part of a team that helped streamline a process for US forces and Afghans to share intelligence and collaborate.

Jayson Harpster works alongside Kohee in Zabul Province

He said Nabi and Kohee opposed the corruption that plagued many Afghan institutions and were always dedicated to the US mission.

And that has been one of the hardest things to face about his current situation, Nabi said.

“We stood by you, we supported you for the last 20 years, we worked together to build a better future for Afghanistan and fight oppression”, but the US has forsaken those who helped it, he said.

On top of his full-time job at a healthcare start-up and parenting two young children, Mr Harpster has been working day and night since August last year to help Nabi and Kohee and their families. The 35-year-old has already raised tens of thousands of dollars through online donations.

“It was just horrifying getting those initial messages [saying], ‘please help us, we have nowhere to go,’” said Mr Harpster. “That’s when it started to hit me just how terrible everything was.”

Since helping to bring the families to a safe house in Pakistan, Mr Harpster has been pressing the US government to bring them to America.

The wait has been nerve-racking.

“They can barely go outside,” he said. “And it’s scary, there have been neighbours pounding on the door asking who they are and why they are there.”

It has led to some complicated moments, with urgent medical treatment needed for Nabi’s daughter at one point, as well as check-ups required for Kohee’s heavily pregnant wife.

“They are one phone call away from being arrested, getting deported and then the Taliban doing whatever they do,” said Mr Harpster, who is pinning his hopes on humanitarian parole.

Humanitarian parole allows a person to come to the US for a temporary period of time for urgent reasons.

A large pile of forms is stacked on his dining room table.

“This is our Afghanistan binder,” he said. “This is what $7,000 of humanitarian parole applications looks like. “They charge you $575 a person, which you can imagine most Afghans can’t afford.”

He said the US government has been rejecting most humanitarian parole applications.

“It’s a sick joke,” Mr Harpster said.

“These are amazing people who would make amazing Americans. If we’re not successful at getting the system to save them, that’s going to be on my conscience forever.”

A high bar to enter the US

Afghan applications for humanitarian parole spiked after the Taliban took over.

In a typical year, the US receives fewer than 2,000 requests overall. But since July 1, 2021, the US has received more than 40,000 requests from Afghans alone.

With many unable to qualify for Special Immigrant Visas and the US Refugee Admissions Programme backlogged, it has become a last resort.

UN data shows increase in Afghans arriving in Pakistan. Aneesh Grigary / The National

But Parastoo Zahedi, an immigration lawyer working in Virginia, says the bar has been set too high by the US government.

“They want documentation from a credible third-party source specifically naming the applicant, outlining the serious harm they face,” she said, reading a denial notice from US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“It’s a very heightened level of what they’re requiring for Afghan nationals,” she said. “An individualised imminent threat of harm.”

Ms Zahedi said this means humanitarian parole does not apply to persecuted groups such as women or followers of certain religions who would otherwise be protected through seeking asylum.

“Humanitarian parole should not have a higher standard than refugee applications or asylum.”

She has called on the administration of US President Joe Biden to create a special Afghan parole programme and “reduce evidentiary requirements and standards for Afghan nationals”.

“You’re dealing with humans … it is not their fault that they were born in Afghanistan, it is not their fault how their country is being decimated by things outside of their control.”

Since the fall of Kabul, the US government has rejected about 85 per cent of the applications they have processed for Afghans.

And with tens of thousands of cases to work through, processing times are slow.

US Citizenship and Immigration Services told The National that the Department of Homeland Security has “increased the number of officers working on parole cases by approximately five-fold to assist with the surge in requests”.

The agency is not allowed to comment on individual cases.

Waiting can be dangerous for the undocumented.

Maria Naimi, Nabi’s sister-in-law who lives in Canada, has been helping the families with translation throughout their attempt to obtain parole. They have been waiting for a reply since September.

In a tearful interview, she said there needs to be a better system in place.

“People are waiting for an answer on whether or not they will live or die,” she said, “and prolonging it can ultimately result in their death.

“Everything is riding on this.”

Since publishing this article, Kohee’s wife has given birth.

Updated: February 15, 2022, 7:45 PM