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The visas are issued through the Afghan Allies Protection Act, which Congress established in 2009. The program, which has authorized 1,500 visas per year to Afghans and their families, is set to expire in September 2014.

A program established by Congress in 2007 specifically for Afghan and Iraqi interpreters authorized 50 visas a year, with a temporary increase of 500 a year for 2007 and 2008. Of the 1,250 visas available, about 940 have been issued.

“They have not been moving through them at a pace that will either clear the backlog or even approach exhaustion of the available visas before the program expires,” said Ms. Reisner, who estimates the number of Afghan interpreters in the tens of thousands.

About 5,000 to 7,000 Afghans are waiting in the backlog, said Kirk W. Johnson, founder and executive director of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies.

A State Department spokeswoman who spoke on background said the U.S. Embassy in Kabul has “increased staffing to meet the increased demands for visa appointments [and] increased resources to improve efficiency at all stages of the [visa] process and reduce processing backlogs without compromising security.”

Former State Department official Marc Chretien, who served as a political adviser to Marine Gen. John R. Allen while he was coalition commander, said U.S. consular officials are less aware of the personal sacrifices made by interpreters aiding troops in the field.

“There’s no sense of urgency; they’re not the ones that have been on patrol with these guys,” Mr. Chretien said.

The issue for Mr. Chretien is personal: His Iraqi interpreter’s brother was kidnapped, held for ransom and “had his face bashed in” because of his affiliation.

Some applications, he said, are rejected because of technicalities: Interpreters who work for U.S. troops but were hired by the NATO coalition are not eligible. Visas can be granted only to those directly “employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government.”

“We have consistently held that employees of governments other than the United States have not been authorized under the law to receive [visas],” the State Department spokeswoman said.

Mr. Chretien said it is easy to determine whether interpreters worked with U.S. troops, even if they were hired by NATO.

“You cannot continue to screw people. These are not the pooh-bahs and the warlords with condos in Dubai,” he said. “They’re in their 20s, they speak English, they work hard. They will succeed in our country.”

Timely assistance

Mr. Johnson, executive director of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, served as the U.S. Agency for International Development regional coordinator for reconstruction in Fallujah in 2005. He said visa applications are backlogged at the State Department for a couple of reasons.

“Nobody in these bureaucracies wants to put their signature on the next 9/11 hijacker. The bureaucracies have come to view the people upon whom we rely as potential terrorists,” said Mr. Johnson, whose book “To Be a Friend Is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind” will be published this fall. “As a result, they’ve created these enhanced processes that are basically these ridiculous requests for information again and again and again. What they do is basically drag out the process, and design it in such a way that it takes years to get a visa.”

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