- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Afghan civilians who have helped coalition troops in the U.S.-led mission now fear the Taliban will kill them after Western forces leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

“In Afghanistan, if you work with foreigners — not just Americans — they call you an infidel or a spy,” an Afghan man who has worked as an interpreter for U.S. troops said of the Taliban.

“Once the Taliban find out that you’re working for the U.S. Army, you’re done for, and so is your family,” he said in a phone interview from Kabul. Like most other interpreters interviewed for this article, he asked that his name not be used out of fear for his and his family’s lives.

When his elder brother, who also works as an interpreter for U.S. troops, received death threats, his boss gave him two options: He could either quit his job or take $400 and buy an AK-47 assault rifle for his protection.

Since the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the Western coalition has employed thousands of Afghans, most of them as interpreters, who have accompanied troops to the front lines of the war.

While the personal risks are daunting, coalition jobs mean good money for Afghans desperate for work in a feeble economy.

“For interpreters, it’s a choice between money and security,” said a second Afghan man who recently moved to Virginia with his wife, a U.S. citizen, but who still has family in Afghanistan.

He said he was motivated to earn enough money to pay his way through college. He worked for a year as an interpreter translating between the local languages, Dari and Pashto, and English as he accompanied U.S. troops on dangerous missions to Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south, as well as to the capital, Kabul.

“If someone wants to kidnap you, you are not safe even in the middle of Kabul,” he said. “You may be safe when you’re on the [military] base, but you are always worrying about your family,” often living hundreds of miles away.

President Obama on Friday will host Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the White House for talks on the security transition in Afghanistan.

Special visa programs

Interpreters and their families, especially those who live in Taliban strongholds in the south and east of the country, have been threatened, attacked and even killed.

In November, the Taliban killed two Afghan interpreters in eastern Logar province.

“Bombs have exploded outside the homes of my friends” who worked with the coalition, said Abdul, an interpreter based in southern Afghanistan who gave only his first name. “They lost their family. They received threats, but that is normal.”

Omar Samad, a senior Afghanistan specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said, “Taliban targeting of such individuals is a psychological-warfare tactic that could be effective in the short term but very damaging to the country that needs to keep its human and professional capital at home.

“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.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, meanwhile, has stepped up staffing at its consular section and increased resources to speed up the special immigrant visa process and reduce backlogs.

“The tempo of overall issuances is continuing to improve, and we expect significantly higher numbers in [fiscal] 2013,” said Mr. Clay, the State Department spokesman.

Afghans who hold dual citizenship have the option of moving to other countries, but for most, that is not a choice.

“We want to get out of Afghanistan,” said the first Afghan interpreter, who lives in Kabul. “Whether we go to Europe or America or Australia, we don’t care. We just want to save our lives.”