WASHINGTON — The Taliban on Monday called on Afghans who worked as interpreters or in other jobs for U.S.-led forces to show “remorse” for their actions but said they were not in danger now that American troops are leaving the country.
The Taliban have a long track record of threatening and killing Afghans who worked for the United States and NATO allies or with Western-backed organizations. Since 2014, at least 300 Afghans who served as interpreters have been murdered by the Taliban, according to No One Left Behind, a veteran-led nonprofit devoted to helping Afghan and Iraqi interpreters.
But amid growing calls in Washington for an evacuation of the thousands of Afghans who served alongside U.S. troops and diplomats, the Taliban issued an unusual statement. The group, which has portrayed Afghans who cooperated with the NATO troop presence as traitors and infidels, said that these former U.S. partners had nothing to fear.
Afghans who worked with NATO troops “should show remorse for their past actions and must not engage in such activities in the future that amount to treason against Islam and the country,” the Taliban statement said, referring to themselves as the “Islamic Emirate.”
“But none should currently desert the country. The Islamic Emirate will not perturb them, but calls them to return to their normal lives and if they do have expertise in any field, to serve their country. They shall not be in any danger on our part,” the group said.
It was not clear if the Taliban were offering safety in return for Afghans renouncing their past work with the Americans, but human rights advocates said the insurgents’ promises could not be trusted given their well-documented abuses and attacks on civilians, civil society activists and prominent women in public life.
“There is no reason for Congress or the Biden administration to take the Taliban’s word for this, as the Taliban and associated groups have already been responsible for killing hundreds of U.S.-affiliated Afghans,” said Adam Bates, policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project.
“Afghans can make their own assessments of the good faith of the Taliban’s press statements; the Biden administration and Congress must work to provide every possible avenue to safety for vulnerable Afghans as the U.S. withdraws,” Bates said in an email to NBC News.
The Taliban statement said the U.S. troop withdrawal, which is due to be carried out by a Sept. 11 deadline under President Joe Biden’s orders, had changed their attitude towards Afghans who worked with the Americans.
“We viewed them as our foes when they were directly standing in the ranks of our enemies, but when they abandon enemy ranks and opt to live as ordinary Afghans in their homeland, they will not face any issues hence they should not remain fearful and should continue living a serene life in their own country,” the Taliban said.
The Taliban’s statement came as U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and other senior U.S. officials visited the region and held talks with Taliban representatives and Afghan government leaders.
On Monday, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal came out in favor of an evacuation of Afghan partners, and the Washington Post endorsed the idea in an editorial on Friday.
There are about 18,000 Afghans who are trying to obtain an American visa under a program set up in 2009 by Congress for former employees of the U.S. government in Afghanistan. But the Special Immigrant Visa program has faced chronic delays and a massive backlog. Applicants often have to wait several years for a decision even though by law the process is supposed to last no longer than nine months.
At a congressional hearing on Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the administration was adding an additional 50 staff to help expedite applications for the SIV program.
But Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking GOP member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said there was not enough time to process visa applications before U.S. troops depart between now and Sept. 11.
“That means these people will have a bull’s-eye and a target on their back from the moment we leave the country,” McCaul said.
Asked if the administration was planning a possible evacuation of Afghan partners to a third country where their applications could be reviewed, Blinken indicated it was possible.
“We are considering every option, yes,” said Blinken, without elaborating.
But Blinken said it was not a given that the security situation in Afghanistan would quickly unravel after U.S. forces pull out.
“I wouldn’t necessarily equate the departure of our forces in July, August or by early September with some kind of immediate deterioration in the situation,“ he said.
Abigail Williams contributed.