Abandoned Allies: Afghan Interpreters Left Behind By US


Last Week Tonight with John Oliver recently featured a segment about the US abandonment of its Afghan interpreters. As Oliver notes, these Afghan interpreters served the US government by fulfilling the much needed role as a liaison between the military and local Afghan populations. They made themselves targets of the Taliban by doing so. Although promised a US visa should their lives become endangered, red tape is making it impossible for many to leave their country.

Reason TV had the story first, releasing a documentary in July featuring Janis Shinwary, an Afghan interpreter who escaped Afghanistan and is now speaking out on behalf of the interpreters left behind.

Original text below. Initially published on July 22, 2014:

"I was getting letters from Taliban, they were showing up at my house and everywhere. They were telling me that they were going to kill me or a member of my family, or kidnap my son," says Janis Shinwari, a former Afghan interpreter for the American military.

The U.S. military relies heavily on locals in Afghanistan and Iraq to serve as interpreters. The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project estimates that 50,000 Iraqi and Afghan nationals served as U.S. military interpreters over the past decade-plus.

Interpreters provide one of the most crucial roles in a military unit—without them, service members would not be able to communicate with local populations. It's also one of the most dangerous roles. In Afghanistan, the Taliban labels interpreters traitors and has no compunction about killing them and their loved ones.

"Interpreters have become a very big target of the Taliban and Al Queda," says Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). "There's been a lot of beheadings of people that have worked with the West." 

The U.S. was able to recruit interpreters by promising them American visas when the war ended. "If we completely pull out of Afghanistan and we don't bring these interpreters back," says Kinzinger, "they're going to be killed. Their families are being killed too. Their houses are being burned down. It is very messy over there." 

An officer in the Air National Guard and a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, Kinzinger is pushing Congress to extend and amend the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Program. The program was established in 2009 to give visas to Afghan nationals who helped the U.S. military. The program has been extremely inefficient and it can take years for an application to be processed. From 2009 to 2013, Congress said 7,500 visas could be issued but the State Department approved only 2,000

"A lot of it is because of bureaucratic wrangling," says Kinzinger. "While we do need to have good background checks and we do need to be cautious about this, its been way too slow at this point and a lot of translators have given their lives in the wait."  

The State Department has responded to the criticism by improving the processing time. So far in 2014, approximately 2,300 Afghans received visas out of an allocation limit of 3,000. But State expects to run out of allocated visas within a few weeks and the whole program expires in September, leaving 6,000 applicants in limbo

Secretary of State John Kerry has appealed to Congress to extend the program and to grant more visas for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends on September 30.
If left behind, many interpreters will die at the hands of the Taliban. Janis Shinwari was able to escape that fate and moved to Virginia in October with his wife and two children. His visa came largely due to the efforts of Army Capt. Matt Zeller, whose life he saved (Shinwari is credited with saving the lives of at least four other American soldiers). In 2008, Zeller returned to the U.S. while Shinwari stayed in Afghanistan to continue his work as an interpreter.

"It was the hardest goodbye I've ever had in my life," says Zeller. "If he had been an American he would have been getting on that plane with us. It didn't feel right."
Zeller relentlessly pressured the State Department to issue Shinwari his visa. He eventually succeeded and now the two friends are focused on not only bringing more interpreters to America but also providing food, shelter, and job opportunities to them once they arrive through Zeller's nonprofit, No One Left Behind.

Increasing and extending the visa program is "the right thing to do," says Rep. Kinzinger, who stresses not just the promises the U.S. made in the past but how abandoning local partners will affect operations in future wars. "America is going to find itself in another war one day—it's a reality. And then if we go in and we try to bring the local population on our side, and they look at history and look at all the promises we made in the past that we didn't follow through [on], that harms our national security because we can't convince them that America stands by its word."

About 6 minutes.
Produced by Amanda Winkler. Camera by Joshua Swain, Tracy Oppenheimer, and Winkler. Narrated by Todd Krainin.
Scroll below for downloadable versions and subscribe to Reason TV's YouTube channelto receive automatic notifications when new videos go live.
Music by The Abbasi Brothers.

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  1. Jesus, is there anything our government can do competently?

    1. You got a wedding party that needs to be droned? Or a couple of trillion dollars that needs to be wasted?

    2. Yes. Spend money it doesn’t have and piss people off. It’s really quite excellent at those things.

  2. We can’t let Afghans who helped us in! They probably have Ebola!

    1. Or they want to get gay married and sue under public accommodation laws!

      1. They’ll force everyone to make Ebola wedding cakes!

        1. Now you finally understand the disposition matrix for drone process.

  3. What kind of fool trusts the U.S.? It’s not like they don’t have a history.

  4. I saw this movie. They tried to sneak them out, but the developing of the film didn’t work, so the fake passport for Anketell Brewer wasn’t usable.

  5. That guy should just change his name to Mohammed and try to blend in…

  6. Just get him to El Salvador and he can get into America from there.

  7. Ok, I’ve had enough nut punches for today, time to lighten the mood a little bit.

    In the old west, a man robbed a bank in El Paso and rode out of town. The sheriff quickly formed a posse and tracked him down to a small cantina near the border. The sheriff decided to interrogate the bank robber their and try to find out where he had hidden the money. But the bank robber only spoke Spanish, do they got the bartender to translate.

    Sheriff through translator-“Where’s the money?”

    Bank robber through translator”I’ll never tell you.”

    *Sheriff pulls his revolver and puts it to the bank robbers head*”Tell me where the money is”

    Bank robber(in Spanish) okay, okay, I hid it under the bridge north of town.

    Translator” He said he’s not afraid to die.”

  8. This is, quite simply, a Grade-A dick move on the part of our government. It’s no great mystery what happens to collaborators on the departure of an occupying army; still less when the native powers that be are as vicious as are the ones in Afghanistan today. Quite simply, a refusal to stand for our translators in defiance of the oral and written agreements to the contrary is a betrayal of principle and a signal to those who would support us that it does not pay to help the US or to oppose our enemies.

    1. This is at best a Grade-B dick move; the Grade-A dick move was invading Afghanistan in the first place.

  9. “You fucked up. You trusted us.”

  10. You’ve helped the US? Sorry, red tape prevents us from giving you that visa we promised.

    You’re an uneducated Honduran teen with gang tattoos and a bad cough? Welcome to America! Here’s your EBT card. We’d like you to show up at a hearing in six months. Yes, I know it’s funny, but we have to say that. Of course it won’t matter if you don’t show up!

    1. Re: PapayaSF,

      You’re an uneducated Honduran teen with gang tattoos and a bad cough? Welcome to America! Here’s your EBT card Democratic voter registration form.

      There. More accurate.

      How do you think a lazy oaf like Sheila Jackson Lee gets reelected?

      1. Is there a need for a separate voter registration form? I thought that’s what Motor Voter was for.

  11. The program has been extremely inefficient and it can take years for an application to be processed.

    Welcome to my world.

  12. I have been trying to help two Iraqis get out…one may be about out of there, one is hung up in paperwork hell. I even had the local Congress Critter’s staff get involved.

    Sometimes we suck, here in America.

    1. I don’t agree (really strongly disagree) with Papaya on immigration – but he’s right that the southern border is pretty porous.

      This dude should just get a flight into Mexico and pay for some fake documentation, change his name to Juan valdez, and slip across the border.

      Not only would he have a greater chance to get in but face less punishment if caught.

      1. Sadly true. And Islam has been making significant inroads among Hispanics, and Hezbollah has had a presence in South America for many years. Sooner or later, the southern border will be crossed by terrorists, and then the issue will really hit the fan.

  13. I think this is the fifth or sixth reason cover story that John Oliver has featured on his show. I lost count, but I know he did prisons, eminent domain, and some others. He also did payday loans but from the wrong side. I noticed the overlap weeks ago, and he’s done two reason-esque stories since then. It’s hard to believe it’s a coincidence.

  14. my co-worker’s mother makes $71 /hr on the laptop . She has been unemployed for 9 months but last month her payment was $17334 just working on the laptop for a few hours. published here

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