Afghan Interpreters Risked Everything To Help American Soldiers. Now They Might Be Left Behind.

"I am currently very afraid," an interpreter tells Reason. "I...have no doubt that I will be targeted and get killed."


American troops are scheduled to come home from Afghanistan by September 11. What will become of the Afghan interpreters who have helped those troops is less clear.

Sayed is one of those interpreters. He worked alongside U.S. forces for 10 years, assisting high-ranking military officials with his knowledge of the local language and customs. "I received letters of appreciation, letters of recommendations, and medals," he tells Reason.

Even with this record, Sayed has spent more than a decade trying to acquire a visa to come to the United States. American ties carry grave risks in Afghanistan. Already the recipient of Taliban death threats and anonymous hostile phone calls, Sayed fears his time is running out. 

"I am currently very afraid," he says. "I…have no doubt that I will be targeted and get killed."

In 2009, the U.S. government set up an immigration pathway for interpreters like Sayed. That program is called the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) for Afghans, and it is supposed to reward interpreters for "faithful and valuable service to the U.S. government." Afghans who have completed at least two years of service to U.S. forces are eligible to apply. 

But application backlogs, administrative foot dragging, and bureaucratic errors are making it nearly impossible for Afghan interpreters to access those visas. Unable to take advantage of the opportunity supposedly afforded to them in return for their service, interpreters stranded in Afghanistan face extreme danger. That will worsen as they lose the protection of the U.S. military presence. 

Margaret Stock, an immigration lawyer and 2013 MacArthur genius grant recipient, tells Reason that the program has long been flawed. In addition to an intensive 14-step application process that interpreters have to navigate, "security checks" and a "lack of trained personnel" keep wait times lengthy, she says. While Congress mandates that the application process be completed within nine months, the current processing period is nearly three years long.

"If [the Department of State] actually devoted resources to the processing, each case should only take a couple of months," says Stock. 

Sayed is one of many interpreters waiting on what could be a life-saving answer from the U.S. government. Since December 2014, 26,500 SIVs have been allocated. There are now 18,000 SIV applications pending, though there are more than 10,000 unused visas as of January. If you add the applicants' family members, who do not count toward the visa cap, around 70,000 Afghans are in limbo.

Even when applications are finally processed, government errors may wrongly lead to visa denials.

"I am seeing a lot of [applications] denied because [the Department of State] has made mistakes with the applications," says Stock. Those include "a bad translator at the visa interview" misunderstanding something important, confusion on the State Department's part, and "'revenge' cases"—when an interpreter's enemy plants bad info to get a visa denied.

Sayed says that's why he's been waiting more than a decade for his visa. He "was recommended for termination" from his job in 2012 after other interpreters claimed he was receiving undue pay. Soon after that, his SIV petition was revoked. He reapplied and sought the necessary chief-of-mission approval, which he had received once before, and finally got it again earlier this year. Now his application is one of thousands in the backlog. 

Sayed says he has been forced to avoid tribe and family gatherings because of his ties to the U.S. military. Family members report that he is often called a spy. Once, he says, he found a letter from the Taliban in his yard, threatening to kill him as "a lesson" to other Afghans working with Americans. The U.S. government does not record interpreter deaths, but over 300 Afghan interpreters and family members are thought to have died since 2014. Many of them were waiting for visas.

Janis Shinwari managed to secure one. He served as an interpreter in Afghanistan for eight years and got his SIV after a nearly three-year wait. After coming to the U.S. he co-founded No One Left Behind, a group that assists new SIV arrivals and advocates expedited visa processing. 

He knows better than most that "a visa is not only a visa" but "the beginning of a new life." Part of his mission at No One Left Behind is to convince the government that "we don't have to let [interpreters] die because of their service." 

According to Shinwari, thousands of applicants have "received their approval" and are waiting for their interviews—and thousands have "passed the interview" and are waiting for visas.

"These are the last people we should be pulling the rope away from," says Gil Barndollar, a senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship. As a Marine, Barndollar deployed twice to Afghanistan and relied on interpreters during his tours of duty; he notes that Afghan interpreters have already undergone extensive background checks by virtue of their military service. Because of this, he says, "the odds of an SIV recipient committing an act of jihad or becoming a militant are in the ballpark of being struck by lightning. It effectively doesn't happen." It's "ridiculous" to think that vetted SIV recipients are security risks, he says. Just one out of 70,000 Afghan and Iraqi SIV recipients has tried to join a terrorist group.

Government officials have not responded to these calls with urgency. In early February, President Joe Biden issued an executive order on immigration and called for a review of SIV programs to be carried out within six months. On May 19, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D–N.H.) and Joni Ernst (R–Iowa) sent a bipartisan letter urging the administration to reevaluate the Afghan SIV program. They recommended speeding up the visa-granting process as well as increasing the number of visas allotted. Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R–Ill.) and Earl Blumenauer (D–Ore.) introduced a bill to that effect on Tuesday. If passed, it would allocate an additional 4,000 visas for Afghans.

But it'll be hard to accomplish meaningful change now, given how long the SIV program has been dysfunctional. "This mess has been going on for more than a decade," says Stock. "Obama couldn't fix it in eight years. Trump made it worse. Biden doesn't have the people in place to fix it, let alone in a few months." 

Because of the program's issues, many are proposing alternative measures. Rep. Michael McCaul (R–Texas) said Afghans may need to be airlifted to safer nearby countries until their applications are processed. Matt Zeller, who co-founded No One Left Behind with Shinwari, says "it's Guam or bust"—a reference to the post–Vietnam War operations that brought over 100,000 Vietnamese refugees to the U.S. territory for visa processing. Standard immigration pathways, like seeking refugee status, are simply too lengthy given the impending U.S. withdrawal. "Your odds drop through the floor once you're in the regular refugee pool," says Barndollar. "You've got a long, long wait if you don't have some kind of workaround like the SIV program."

Without quick action, interpreters and their families will face a catastrophe, says Stock. "We are about to see a repeat of the bloodbath at the end of the Vietnam War, where people were hanging off helicopters in Saigon, only worse." 

Shinwari's life could not be more different since coming to the U.S. "The first night when I slept here in a hotel, that was my first night in my entire life that I slept without any fear," he says. "I slept without hearing any gunshots. I slept without hearing any rocket attacks." It was not just a matter of physical safety: "I finally understood that I have rights in this country." 

Interpreters like Shinwari put themselves in grave danger to serve a country they had never even visited, and those who have made it here are clearly giving back to their communities. "These are young, forward-looking, entrepreneurial people" who are "exactly what you want in new immigrants and people coming to this country," says Barndollar. Sayed, his family, and thousands of other Afghans deserve that opportunity.

If they don't get it, Shinwari adds, Washington will be hard-pressed to find helpers in whatever wars lie ahead. "No one will trust us in the future. Nobody."