By Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Stacia George hired buses to take hundreds of Afghans, including many who worked for the U.S. government, to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif after the Taliban seized Kabul. She planned for charter jets to whisk them to new lives outside Afghanistan.
But a month later, the former U.S. government aid official said, some 300 remain stranded because the Taliban have allowed only a few charter flights and restricted departures to foreign nationals and Afghans with authorization from other countries.
Vague U.S. security vetting procedures for Afghans seeking to leave also are contributing to the delays that George said are bleeding her organization of tens of thousands of dollars a day.
"Money we would have used to buy seats on a plane is now going to housing and feeding people," said George. "Every hour that passes is money."
Her organization, Afghanistan Transit Initiative, which says on its website it has raised $1.4 million of its $10 million goal, is not the only private group helping Afghans that is worried about a funding crunch.
Money concerns are growing among other non-profit groups supporting thousands of vulnerable Afghans seeking evacuation from Taliban rule amid reports the Islamist militants are conducting house searches, reprisal killings and other abuses.
Organizers of Human First Coalition, a non-profit run by military veterans and former U.S. officials, have supplemented donations with $6 million from their own 401k retirement accounts, said Joy Shanaberger, the group's fundraising director.
"We have about a $2 million a week burn rate," said Shanaberger. "We still have 10,000 people in our care and many more on the wait list."
HELPING THOSE IN HIDING
The non-profit groups emerged from ad hoc networks formed by current and former U.S. officials, veterans and others to bolster what they saw as a shambolic U.S. rescue operation that ended the 20-year U.S.-led war in Afghanistan in August.
Through ties forged in combat or aid programs, social media and encrypted communications, the groups are running on-the-ground networks that arrange shelter, food and medical care for vulnerable Afghans who were not evacuated.
Many Afghans being cared for by the groups are in hiding. They have little or no money for rent, medical care or food, the costs of which have soared amid shortages and a drought.
"These are people who can't go out or they get killed," said Zac Lois, a retired U.S. special forces captain who oversees operations for Task Force Pineapple, one of the largest volunteer evacuation group.
But donations are diminishing "because once the news cycle moves on, the focus moves with it," he said. "We are burning through capital at an exorbitant rate."
If the groups run out funding, "then the question becomes what do we do now because we are committed to our friends," Lois said. "You don't leave people behind."
Organizers declined to disclose how they get money to their networks, concerned the cash-strapped Taliban will find out. But, they said they strictly comply with U.S. laws, including seeking humanitarian licenses from the U.S. Treasury to avoid running afoul of U.S. sanctions against the Islamists.
The groups say there are tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans seeking evacuation. They include some 20,000 who worked for the U.S. government and applied for U.S. Special Immigration Visas, who with their families could total some 90,000 people.
Group organizers are in regular contact with the U.S. government, which they said should take over funding private charter flights and negotiate landing rights in countries where evacuees could wait while their applications for U.S. visas or humanitarian parole into the United States are processed.
"This is certainly the role the government or international agencies should be executing," said Jesse Jensen, a retired U.S. Army Ranger and an organizer of Task Force Argo, a volunteer group trying to evacuate Americans and Afghans who served the U.S. government. "We can't do this indefinitely."
President Joe Biden's administration is working to arrange evacuations of remaining U.S. citizens, green card holders and SIV holders and their families. But it has not agreed to pick up the costs of private charter flights, the private groups said.
A State Department spokesperson said that despite the groups' "good intentions," every flight they chartered during and after the 17-day U.S. evacuation operation in Kabul had problems ranging from passengers without passports or falsified documents to unaccompanied minors.
"Because of these complications and associated security risks, we are reevaluating our support for these privately organized charter flights to determine how best to ensure the fidelity of the manifests," the spokesperson said.
Private organizers push back on the idea that the people on their manifests are not properly vetted.
"Most of these are people we know and served with," said Lois of Task Force Pineapple.
Still, Human First Coalition spokesman Alex Plitsas said he understood the State Department's concerns because "a lot of random people" have contacted private groups seeking evacuation.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Ross Colvin and Daniel Wallis)