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Tied up for years in U.S. red tape, Afghan aides are Taliban targets

Interpreters risking their lives fear they may be left behind

- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 4, 2013

Thousands of Afghan interpreters whose visa applications are stuck in bureaucratic backlogs at the State Department are terrified that they will be Taliban targets when most U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan next year.

Taliban insurgents consider the interpreters, who have helped U.S. and coalition forces, as traitors or lackeys of the "puppet" Afghan government in Kabul.

Over the past five years, about 19 percent of the visas allotted to Afghan aides and their relatives have been issued — about 1,420 out of 7,500 available. Thousands more Afghans wait for visas, some for years. At this rate, they will be left behind long after U.S. combat forces are gone, analysts say.

A 27-year-old interpreter who asked not to be identified for safety reasons said he survived two attempts on his life.

The first time, he was returning to a coalition base from leave and told his taxi driver not to stop for any reason. Along the way, he noticed a car following them. About 6 miles from the base, gunfire spewed from the car before it sped off.

"I saw the dust blowing as bullets hit the ground," he said.

The second time, he had accepted a day laborer's repeated invitations for dinner at his home. At the last minute, he was called to help coalition medics and missed the dinner. The next day, the laborer didn't show up.

Another worker told him, "Did you hear? He had ties with the insurgents and Taliban. He had planned your assassination at his home."

The interpreter applied for a visa in February 2012 and was interviewed at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in April this year. Now, he is waiting.

A fellow interpreter who has worked for soldiers and airmen for four years has been waiting for more than two years.

The 25-year-old interpreter, whose wife is pregnant with their second daughter, said he applied in March 2011, was interviewed in July 2012, and hasn't heard anything about his application since then.

"It is an honor for me to serve with the U.S. armed forces, because these people left their families behind to help Afghanistan," he said. "But when you're working with coalition forces, insurgents and Taliban forces see you working with them and have killed too many interpreters and Afghan national workers."

'No sense of urgency'

Lawyers at the nonprofit Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project work to secure visas for several hundred Afghan and Iraqi interpreters at a time. They say the approval process is complicated and lengthy, and spans several government agencies, but that applications are getting mired at the initial approval stage under the State Department.

"Over and over again, that's where we saw people waiting for 18 months, two years," said Katie Reisner, national policy director for the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which has helped bring more than 1,800 Iraqis and Afghans to the U.S. in the past five years.

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."

He said the problem lies ultimately with the president.

"The problem is the White House," Mr. Johnson said. "Even a cursory look at the history of refugee processing shows that, when the American president declares that this is a priority, all of the nonsense and the idiotic facets of the current program melt away.

"If President Obama said, 'OK, enough. Get our interpreters out,' you really think that the 28-year-old consular officer at the Embassy in Kabul is going to say, 'Well, sorry, sir. This is going to take us two years to do this?' The bureaucracies are going to react."

Mr. Obama has not responded to a letter sent recently by a bipartisan group of 19 lawmakers who said the "U.S. has a responsibility to follow through on our promise to protect those Iraqis and Afghans who have risked their lives to aid our troops."

Lawmakers are working to extend the visa program's deadline through December 2015, broaden its eligibility requirements to include those hired by NATO and allow extended family members under threat to be eligible. Those proposals are slated to become law this year, when Congress passes the 2014 defense appropriations bill.

But the law will matter little if the process isn't accelerated, advocates say.

More trouble ahead

The Taliban have been attempting to retake lost ground this fighting season. Since coalition officials stopped reporting violence statistics in March, there is only anecdotal evidence as to whether security is getting better, said Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Coalition officials said the casualty rate for Afghan National Security Forces has "spiked over any previous record" and amounts to an estimated 1,200 killed and wounded per month, Ms. Chayes said at a Senate hearing July 11.

In addition, Helmand province is "reinfested with Taliban," insurgents are attacking larger groups than they have in years, and Pakistanis are being sent into the fight in large numbers this year, she said.

Afghan interpreters are starting to ask directly for help.

"Our assistance to you and your country not only put us at risk but also leaves our entire families prone to the deadliest threats from the insurgents side," reads a letter by a group of interpreters provided last month to The Washington Times.

Also entangled in bureaucracy is a similar visa program for interpreters in Iraq, where the United Nations said sectarian violence killed more than 1,000 people in May.

From 2008 to 2012, about 30 percent of available visas for Iraqis who worked for the U.S. were issued — 7,800 out of 25,000 visas, according to the State Department. The program is to expire in September unless the 2014 defense bill extends it.

Mr. Johnson said former Iraqi interpreters are being targeted a year and a half after the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

"At least 1,000 have been killed, but the true number is likely much higher," he said. "They've been raped, they've been tortured by power tools, they've had family members abducted and killed. We're about to do the same exact thing again to the Afghans who worked for us."

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