Thousands of Afghans, who fought for the CIA and served as security officers for American intelligence officers for years, are in a legal limbo and have appealed to Congress for help.
The U.S. military will withdraw from Afghanistan in August 2021. About 10,000-12,000 members of the Afghan National Strike Unit (also known as “Zero Units”) were evacuated. Their two-year work permit in the U.S. is due to expire in a few days or weeks. The veterans are worried that they won’t be able support their families. Some worry their work for the CIA could even harm the chances of them getting green cards.
Gen. Mohammad Shah is a former Afghan commander of the strike force. He wrote to lawmakers in a letter last month, warning them that his former soldiers are “in urgent crisis”, and asking for action to solve their situation.
Shah’s letter, obtained by NBC News, stated: “Without your assistance, we are stuck.”
Shah wrote: “Recently there have been suicides in our community, driven by an overwhelming sense of helplessness as we watch our immigration requests ignored by the U.S. government.”
Nasir Andar is a veteran in the police force. He said that his comrades suffer from depression because the clock on their work permits is ticking.
Some of them feel hopeless. “They don’t have a clue,” said Andar. He is the director of community engagement for a nonprofit that helps veterans. “We’re trying to guide and boost their spirits.”
Andar and the other advocates of FAMIL, a nonprofit that is trying to help veterans, say at least two veterans who were trained by the CIA have committed suicide since arriving in the U.S.
Most of the veterans who arrived in the U.S. more than two years ago have never received the special visas for immigrants that were designed for Afghans and Iraqis working for the U.S. Government. The veterans are unable to apply for green cards without those visas. They find themselves in a legal grey area.
Shah’s letter states that the veterans “were promised” a proper legal status in “consideration for our service to U.S. Government on the battlefield.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stated that the administration announced recently a streamlined process that allows Afghan refugees to renew their temporary legal residency for two additional years and to continue working in the U.S.
The spokesperson stated that “this action is part the Biden-Harris administration’s ongoing commitment to safety, security and the well-being” of the thousands Afghan nationals who came to the United States after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The spokesperson said that renewal requests would be evaluated on a case by case basis, for urgent humanitarian purposes and a public benefit.
Advocates for the Afghan veterans claim that the bureaucratic processes have been frustrating, and that standard questions on green card applications don’t take into consideration their unique circumstances as CIA trained operators. These applications ask questions such as: “Have You Ever Received Any Type of Military, Paramilitary or Weapons Training?”
Advocates said that when Afghan Zero Unit veterans answer yes to this and similar questions, it does not appear as if their applications are progressing.
“We are not demanding special treatment for these family members. Geeta Bakershi, a former CIA agent who served with the National Strike Unit of Afghanistan, said that what we are advocating is a matter involving basic humanity.
Bakshi created FAMIL in order to assist her former Afghan colleagues. These are veterans that should be honored in America. I never imagined they would be so negatively affected by our bureaucratic process.”
Zero Unit veterans’ advocates claim that they were thoroughly screened for possible terrorist links before joining the force and were regularly subjected security checks. This is a level screening which was not applied to interpreters of the U.S. Military or other Afghan employees. During the 20 years of war, Zero Unit members never attacked their U.S. advisors. Afghan recruits in the police and army were often involved in such “green-on blue” attacks on Americans.
The Zero Units were trained by and supervised by the CIA and operated in secrecy throughout the war. They conducted combat operations and secured intelligence outposts. U.S. officials are still unable to acknowledge the link between the intelligence agency, and the paramilitary forces as the information is classified.
Former CIA officers have said that the Zero Units played a vital role in the U.S. effort to weaken Al Qaeda following the 9/11 attacks. As the U.S. troop presence decreased, it became increasingly dependent on them to protect U.S. personnel and coalition personnel. This included at Kabul Airport in the last days of U.S. 20-year presence.
Former CIA officer who served in Afghanistan said, “These guys did a lot heavy lifting but their role is not well understood or known.” “It all was done with discretion.”
Human rights groups have also criticized the Zero Units for their actions, alleging that they committed war crimes and abuses, including extrajudicial killings and attacks against medical facilities.
Afghan veterans and former CIA agents who worked with the Afghan force reject the accusations, stating that the Zero Units had been trained in laws of armed conflicts and that every operation was thoroughly vetted before. Former CIA officers are concerned that allegations of abuse could delay or undermine efforts to resolve the legal situation of Afghan veterans.
Former U.S. Intelligence Officer: “The CIA, along with its Afghan partners, went to great efforts to prevent civilian casualties, unlike other forces within the country.”
The CIA spokesperson stated that the U.S. took claims of human right abuses “very serious” and takes “extraordinary steps, beyond the legal minimum requirements, to reduce civilian deaths in armed conflicts and strengthen accountability for partners’ actions.”
The Taliban have been running a systematic propaganda campaign for years, which has perpetuated a false narrative about these forces.
Former member of the Afghan forces said that the National Strike Unit was always under the CIA command and did not carry out rogue missions.
“We took their orders.” “We did not fire a single shot without their permission”, the Afghan veteran claimed.
In discussions with Citizenship and Immigration Services and federal agencies, the CIA has advocated on behalf of the Afghan veterans. Some lawmakers have also championed the cause.
A CIA spokesperson stated that the U.S. had made a promise to the Afghan veterans that they would create a path to citizenship. “The process will take some time, but never forgetting our partners. We are committed to help those who helped us.”
The spokesperson said, “We continue to work closely with State Department and other U.S. Government agencies on this project.”
The State Department declined comment.
Rep. Mike Waltz, R. Fla., member of the Intelligence, Armed Services, and Foreign Affairs Committees, stated that “if anyone deserves to be here, then it’s Afghans who stood with us against terrorism.”
Waltz, an ex-Green Beret Army who served in Afghanistan added “The Administration should settle their Status.”
Many Afghans who served in the Zero Units feel abandoned by the government for which they sacrificed their lives.
Zero Units veterans said, “We didn’t expect this. We were not expecting what we were promised. The things we did for this country… we weren’t expecting it.”