Opinion | It’s not too late for Biden to save these Afghan journalists

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Among the millions of innocent people who have endured nearly one year of brutal Taliban rule in Afghanistan, those who worked with the United States face the greatest danger — and journalists top the Taliban’s target list. Many of these journalists are still stranded, mostly due to bureaucratic dysfunction, following the U.S. withdrawal last August. They are desperately waiting for the United States to save them before it’s too late.

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More than a dozen Afghan employees of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a U.S.-government-funded news organization, are still waiting for Washington to honor its promises to safely evacuate them and their families. The Taliban has killed four RFE/RL journalists since 2016, and in the months since the U.S. withdrawal, the regime has continued hunting, harassing and abusing those who remain. At grave risk, they continue to bravely report on the regression of their society under the Taliban’s cruel rule.

The very least the United States can do is to fulfill President Biden’s promise last August: “The United States stands by its commitment that we’ve made to these people, and it includes other vulnerable Afghans, such as women leaders and journalists.”

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Many of the U.S.-sponsored journalists in Afghanistan who wanted to leave were successfully evacuated late last year, but recently, the pace has slowed to a trickle. Two journalists still working for RFE/RL in Afghanistan, whose names I am withholding for their safety, described to me the horrors they have faced over the past year.

The Taliban routinely detains and tortures journalists it deems insufficiently loyal or cooperative. Journalists who are women can no longer show their faces on TV or travel without a male chaperone. Journalists with ties to U.S. or Western media organizations are accused of being spies and could be arrested on false charges at any time.

One RFE/RL journalist in Kabul told me the State Department booked him on an evacuation flight last December, only to cancel his ticket at the last minute with no explanation. He had already sold his possessions and given up his home. Since then, he has been moving locations every month, repeatedly uprooting his wife and five children.

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“If we don’t emigrate from the country, they will come after us. And even if they don’t arrest and torture us and force us to work for them, we will always be suspect in their eyes,” he told me. “I don’t see any future for us here if we are left behind.”

Another RFE/RL journalist who reported in the southern part of Afghanistan for years was forced to leave his village after the Taliban took over. He has since moved to another part of the country and moved his family into hiding. His father was arrested and tortured just for being related to him. Because he has been marked by the U.S. government for evacuation, but not actually evacuated, the Taliban is even more suspicious of him, he said.

“Our situation is getting worse and worse. Every second, I don’t feel safe,” he said. “I don’t know when they might jail or kill me. So I’m just waiting.”

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Stubbornly and proudly, RFE/RL journalists in Afghanistan continue to do their jobs. Radio Azadi, the RFE/RL news service that broadcasts in local languages, continues to be a primary source of independent news for millions of Afghans. Its work also provides the world with a unique window into the hardships currently endured by Afghans.

At a news conference on Wednesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price touted the administration’s evacuation efforts, called Operation Allies Welcome, which Price said had successfully evacuated, vetted and resettled more than 75,000 Afghans.

But in a private briefing Wednesday, State Department officials told congressional officials there are still over 90,000 applicants for special immigrant visas, earmarked for Afghans who worked with the U.S. government. More than 45,000 other Afghans have been referred for other visas that are meant for those who face threats from the Taliban.

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The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on all governments to accept Afghan journalists and to increase pressure on the Taliban to stop persecuting them. But the U.S. government doesn’t actually need the Taliban’s permission — as it showed recently when it evacuated more than four dozen family members of 10 Afghan civilians killed in a U.S. drone strike last year, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) told me.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Malinowski said.

Of course, the blame for the plight of these journalists falls mostly on the Taliban. But that doesn’t change the fact that they need the U.S. government to evacuate them now, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told me.

“It is unconscionable that so many remain stranded — especially journalists who worked for U.S.-supported media outlets and employees of the State Department,” Cardin said. “The Biden administration must elevate their efforts to bring these people to safety.”

These Afghans believed in the future that we promised for their country, and they took personal risks to help bring that future about. We can’t wash our hands of them. We have a moral obligation and a self-interest in preserving the hope of that future.

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