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“On the other hand, the U.S. and other major NATO partners engaged in the Afghan mission and relying on Afghans need to adopt a policy that provides temporary refuge to those facing higher levels of risk,” he said.

U.S. officials acknowledge that Afghans take great risks when they choose to work with the coalition.

“We recognize that many who are employed by, or work on behalf of, the U.S. government in Afghanistan, and their families, face real threats as a result of their U.S. government affiliation,” said State Department spokesman Noel Clay. “We take these threats, and the concerns of those who work with us, very seriously, and we are committed to providing them with the benefits for which they are legally eligible.”

The Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009 authorizes 1,500 special immigrant visas annually through fiscal 2013 for Afghan employees and contractors whose lives are in danger as a consequence of their employment.

An applicant must have been employed by, or on behalf of, the U.S. government in Afghanistan on or after Oct. 7, 2001, for a period of not less than one year to be eligible for the visa.

Afghans who have worked with the U.S. government also are eligible for another special visa program, which is offered to Iraqi interpreters as well. So far, more than 2,100 Afghans have received visas under the two special visa programs.

“There are two categories of people: those who really fear for their lives, especially those who live in remote areas where the Taliban has some influence, and those who want better opportunities and want to leave Afghanistan so that they have an alternative if things get worse beyond 2014,” said Shahmahmood Miakhel, Kabul-based country director of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Western combat forces are set to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

A waiting game

A U.S. visa is not always the answer.

Some Afghans who get the opportunity to move to the U.S. are “disoriented and disappointed” when they arrive because of a lack of proper training and assimilation programs, said Said T. Jawad, president of the Foundation of Afghanistan and a former ambassador of Afghanistan to the U.S.

“They are used to special privileges in Afghanistan and generally have difficulty adjusting to a much lower social status and regret their migration,” he said, adding that many have returned to Afghanistan.

“With the troops drawdown, the U.S. has limited resources and leverage to protect [the Afghans] in their own village and environment,” said Mr. Jawad. “The best way to assist and empower them is to provide them with higher-education opportunities in Asia and the Middle East.”

All of the Afghan interpreters interviewed for this article complained about years-long waits for U.S. visas.

The first Afghan interpreter said his elder brother, who worked for 10 years with U.S. troops, gave up after a seven-year wait for a U.S. visa and moved to London instead.

For those with no option but to wait, their biggest worry is that they will not get their visas before U.S. troops leave Afghanistan.

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