Is the US Abandoning Afghan Interpreters to Certain Death?

Afghan locals who helped the US were promised visas to America. They may be left behind to fight the Taliban on their own.


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"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.

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Music by The Abbasi Brothers.

Photos courtesy of Matt Zeller, Janis Shinwari, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jason Epperson,  Staff Sgt. Christopher Allison, Staff Sgt. Ezekiel R. Kitandwe, Cpl. Adam Leyendecker, Staff Sgt. Eric James Estrada, Representative Adam Kinzinger, Cpl. John McCall,  Lance Cpl. Bobby J. Gonzalez, Tech. Sgt. Kevin Wallace, Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez, and Niklas Bildhauer.