US contractors rush to get former employees out of Afghanistan

Contractor industry groups are set to meet Friday with U.S. government agencies, as companies try to help their former employees in Afghanistan find a way to leave the country.

Three industry associations — the International Stability Operations Association, the National Defense Industrial Association and the Professional Services Council — are slated to meet with Pentagon, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development representatives.

Stephanie Sanok Kostro, executive vice president for policy at PSC, told Defense News the conversation will include special immigrant visas and other options for Afghan and third-country nationals who have worked with U.S. companies and are seeking safety elsewhere.

She said the group has long been trying to help, but that the urgency has dramatically increased following the Taliban takeover of the country this week.

According to the most recent Pentagon quarterly contractor census report, last updated in July, there were nearly 7,800 DOD contractors in Afghanistan, about 5,100 of whom were either third-country nationals or locals. That figure has been much higher in the past; in 2012, for instance, it totaled more than 88,000.

Kostro said companies, who want to help validate employment information needed for visas, are facing several questions, including whether they can assist the employees of subcontractors and vendors.

“To verify their employment has been a real challenge because [the companies] simply don’t have the names and … identifying material for folks who work for subs and vendors,” she said. “But the situation is dire for lots of these folks, and companies are doing everything they can to operate both within U.S. law and within humanitarian spirit.”

Howie Lind, president of the International Stability Operations Association, told Defense News his organization has helped with that employment verification process.

“It’s what we’ve been doing and will continue to do, but this is just an immediate crisis right now to get people out of there,” he said.

Julian Setian, the chief executive of contractor SOS International, a services contractor that first started working in Afghanistan in 2002, said he’s received no fewer than a dozen emails in the last few days from former Afghan employees and vendors who want help getting out of the country.

“Lots of people right now within the company are receiving stray emails from desperate Afghans,” he said.

SOSi has over the years helped about 400 employees or vendors apply for visas. He said about 15 of those have, after moving to the United States, become employees at company headquarters in Reston, Virginia.

Setian said that while some of the company’s contracts in Afghanistan are near completion or were not recompeted in recent months, the Taliban takeover has not ended any of its existing work in the country.

“Over the course of the last six months, programs have been wound down, options haven’t been exercised,” Setian said. “There’s been a lot of pressure on the military to reduce the footprint writ large.”

SOSi has operated and managed the media operations center in Afghanistan; that work will now continue from Qatar, he said.

In addition, “there are other classified programs that are going to continue that have been moved out of the country,” Setian added.

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