‘The first group they will kill’: why Afghan allies are terrified about Australia’s exit

Naser Ahmadi remembers little of the ambush except noise and panic, and the terror of the moment.

It was the end of a routine morning in 2011, when Ahmadi was working as an interpreter for the Australian army in north Kandahar, training recruits for the fledgling Afghan national army.

Without warning, one of the Afghan soldiers being trained picked up his machine gun and opened fire.

“I remember thinking of my mother,” Ahmadi recalls. “I saw how my mother had suffered, losing her son when my brother had been killed. When I was shot, I was thinking, if I die, how my mother would suffer again, to lose a second son.”

The rogue soldier was shot dead, but not before he claimed the lives of three Australian diggers at Sorkh Bed patrol base, as well as one of Ahmadi’s Afghan interpreter colleagues.

“My best friend," él dice.

As Ahmadi fled, a bullet lodged deep in his back, just above his waist. A decade on, he is still weak on his right side, and occasionally numb. He expects never to fully recover.

While Ahmadi carries an almost unimaginable burden from his past, it is the future of his family, his friends and his country that weighs most heavily now.

With the Taliban resurgent across Afganistán, and granted a seat at the table of nascent peace talks, those who might be targeted by the terrorist group are being squeezed into smaller and smaller pockets of safety. The western suburbs of Kabul, once a sanctuary, feel increasingly like an open-air prison.

A principios de este mes, a bomb attack on a girls’ school near Ahmadi’s family’s home left 90 people dead, most of them schoolgirls.

“We fear the Taliban. Even in Kabul, it really is not safe. Every day there are bomb attacks.”

After a two-decade-long war, the US and its allies, including Australia, will withdraw on 11 septiembre.

The withdrawal will leave the security of the country in the hands of a corrupt, ineffective government and an inchoate, poorly motivated military. “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield” and the prospects for a peace deal are “low”, a bleak US intelligence report issued in April said.

Thousands of former coalition allies – including interpreters, security guards, and cultural advisers – as well as their families, are at risk. Tantos como 18,000 Afghan nationals have applied for US visas to emigrate to America.

“Once coalition forces leave Afghanistan, we are expecting a new civil war,” Ahmadi says.

Born in the final chaotic years of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Ahmadi experienced a childhood blighted by conflict and chaos. When civil war erupted in 1996, his family were forced to flee the Taliban to Pakistan for several years.

Despite disrupted schooling, Ahmadi was anxious to learn, and he found an English language course in Kabul.

A 21, having already lived through a decade of the US-led war, he enlisted as an interpreter to help Australian forces. He and his family believed in the rightness of their mission: bringing peace and freedom to a land that had known little of either in his lifetime, or for generations before.

“I wanted an end to terrorism, that is all.”

But he and his family would pay a brutal price for their stance against the Taliban.

His older brother was murdered by the Taliban for enlisting in the Afghan national army.

Ahmadi was shot by the rogue soldier in 2011 and left Afghanistan in 2014, settling in Perth on a humanitarian visa.

But the war wasn’t finished with the Ahmadi family.

En 2015, his father was kidnapped by the Taliban. He has not been seen since.

“He has not been returned, so we hope that he is alive – and he will be returned back – but we don’t know if he is really alive or not.

“Most likely, my father was attacked because of me, because I was working with Australian forces. My brother was murdered by the Taliban because he was working for the ANA, helping the foreign armies. Anyone like that, in Afghanistan, you are a target.”

Ahmadi has established a life and family in Perth, welcoming his first child this year, working as a commercial painter and eventually running his own business.

“It is peaceful here. Always," él dice. But he lives with a constant fear for his parents, his siblings, and his former comrades still in Afghanistan.

“I have a friend who was an interpreter, and he is still in Afghanistan. He worries all the time about his future. ‘If the Taliban comes and catches me,’ he said, ‘I know, straight away they are going to behead me’. That’s a big risk to face in your life. Every single day.”

Others live in hiding. They keep their children from school, locked inside their homes. Some have been attacked by machine-gun fire or bomb blasts, or run over in vehicles.

“By helping the Australian defence force and the coalition, I involved my family in extreme danger. I came here, and I am happy, but I think about them every day.

“We are asking that, if possible, if Australia can help us to take our family from Afghanistan,” Ahmadi says. “While they are in Afghanistan, we are in hell, worrying about them.”

Farjaad* says he saved Australian lives during his work as an interpreter, but he is now waiting anxiously to find out whether he will be given a visa. A previous application in 2014 fue rechazada.

“I hope it will be successful," él dice. “We have saved their troops, I personally saved Australian army many times by listening to the radio and telling them that the Taliban was planning on killing them and now it’s their turn to save our lives.”

Since finishing his work as an interpreter, Farjaad has “felt like a stranger in my own country”, él dice.

“Our village [in Afghanistan’s north] is very close to Taliban territory. I live with fear every day that once the international forces are withdrawn from the country our village will fall into the Taliban’s hands. I know for a fact that I will be the first person the Taliban will kill.”

He says he has struggled to find work because of his connection to Australia. “My dream was to become a teacher," él dice, but his applications to teach, or to work at NGOs, were rejected because of fears his association with foreign forces would put those organisations at risk as well.

Family members are similarly trapped because of their relationship with him.

“The Taliban are more powerful now and they will take over the country in no time,” Farjaad says. “People like me who were in the frontline … we will be the first group they will kill.”

In Australia, the former Australian army captain Jason Scanes and his not-for-profit group Forsaken Fighters have waged a years-long battle to have his translator, and others like him, brought from Afghanistan to safety.

“We created the position these interpreters are in,” Scanes has written.

"Australia has a moral obligation to ensure that those who assisted our troops – and are now actively hunted and killed – are given protection.”

Scanes told the Guardian “we won every battle in Afghanistan, but we lost the war”.

“There will be a great deal of shame felt by many veterans if we abandon those we formed close bonds with and who assisted us on the battlefield.”

Desde 2013, sobre 1,200 gente, including interpreters and their families, have been granted humanitarian visas under Australia’s Afghan locally engaged employees (LEE) visa policy.

A spokesperson for immigration minister Alex Hawke’s department said LEE visa applications “are afforded the highest processing priority within the humanitarian program”, while noting “applicants must still meet rigorous health, character and national security requirements”.

But applications to the program can take two, five, even seven years, to be decided. Many fear the program is moving too slowly, and the window to escape is closing.

Scanes’s Australian mission is part of a broader international push to repay those whose lives are in danger because of the service they gave to coalition forces.

Scanes was one of 30 signatories to a letter to Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of Nato, urging that the withdrawal of troops be accompanied by a rescue plan for interpreters and other local staff.

Dr Sara de Jong of the University of York and a founding member of the Sulha Alliance, which campaigns for interpreters who worked with British forces, says the threat against locally engaged staff is not new “but the Taliban regards the peace accords as a confirmation they won the war”.

“The confidence of the Taliban – and their ability to take revenge – has increased. Some people have been on their radar for 10 años, and the Taliban believes now is the time to punish them for siding with the enemy.”

De Jong says it is “logistically possible” for coalition countries to extract personnel at risk and their families.

“Large-scale evacuations to places like Guam have happened before. Why not do a similar thing?

“Where there’s a will there’s a way. This is an international mission that seeks to coordinate among partner nations, why is there no coordination on this?"

Afghan staff who worked with German and US forces, and their advocates, have similarly pleaded that interpreters and others should not be abandoned.

The US advocacy group No One Left Behind estimates that since 2016 más que 300 interpreters have been killed for their service to American troops, a rate of two a week.

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said this week the US was “rapidly” making plans to evacuate Afghan citizens who had worked for the US military, ahead of September’s troop pullout.

“We recognise that there are a significant amount of Afghans that supported the United States and supported the coalition, and that they could be at risk,” Gen Milley said.

Milley said it was important the US “remain faithful to those who had supported the war effort … and that we do what is necessary to ensure their protection and, si necesario, get them out of the country”.

“There are plans being developed very, very rapidly here, not just interpreters but a lot of other people that have worked with the United States.”

Congressman Jason Crow, a Democrat from Colorado who served in Afghanistan, este mes told the House of Representatives of an interpreter called Mohammed who served US forces for 12 años.

Mohammed first applied for a visa to the US in 2010. His application was repeatedly delayed.

“On January 27 of this year, Mohammed was driving to work with his 10-year-old son when a Taliban vehicle stopped in front of him. Assassins jumped out and gunned him down in front of his son,” Crow said.

“All the while, those assassins yelled out: ‘Where are the American forces to save you? Where are their helicopters? Where are their airplanes? You helped them for a decade. Where are they now?’”

* Name changed to protect safety

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