- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2008

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SALERNO,Afghanistan | The children scattered across the rocky desert as they chased a partially deflated soccer ball.

“Madam, his name is Michael Jackson,” said Ahmed, the eldest in the group. He pointed to a little boy behind him who was pretending to moonwalk on the hardened soil beneath his tattered sandals.

“Madam, cookies,” said another boy, referring to the small bags of Famous Amos cookies that U.S. soldiers had thrown over a barbed-wire-topped chain-link fence.

Many of the children’s parents work at U.S. Forward Operating Base Salerno. It is the largest U.S. base in the Khost, an eastern province along the treacherous Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and an area plagued by lack of food and a growing Taliban insurgency.

Despite the danger of cooperating with the U.S.-led coalition, hundreds of local villagers enter the base daily to work in light construction, ditch digging and cleaning. Those with higher education often are contracted by the U.S. military to work as translators.

Many of these Afghans are motivated not only by money, but by the hope of emigrating to the United States.

For most, however, these expectations are likely to be dashed, creating additional frustrations and disappointment within a population already wavering in its support for the Kabul government and vulnerable to the blandishments of the Taliban, assorted warlords and drug dealers.

In 2005, only 50 visas were issued to Iraqi and Afghan translators and interpreters combined, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that oversees the process.

The number increased to 500 visas per fiscal year for 2006 through 2008. Applicants had to work with the Defense Department or State Department to qualify.

However, after Oct. 1, those numbers will be drastically reduced for Afghans. Legislation will cap visas for translators at 50 annually.

Much more attention has been focused on the plight of Iraqis working for U.S. forces, and as a result, they have other avenues to come to the United States. The 2008 National Defense Authorization Act provides for 5,000 special immigrant Iraqi visas per fiscal year until 2012. Iraqis also will be able to apply under the program that provides 50 visas for translators, further reducing the available slots for Afghans.

So far this year, 468 Afghan translators have applied for visas and more applications are arriving, USCIS officials said.

In April, the State Department reported receiving “enough visa applications to meet the 500 cap,” USCIS spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan said. Unless Congress acts, she said, the number of Afghan interpreters entering the United States will dwindle.

Of more than 20 interpreters interviewed by The Washington Times recently in Afghanistan, most were unaware that only a small portion would have the opportunity to come to the United States.

“Everyone always says that we’re at the top of the list for a visa,” said one interpreter in Kabul, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “Many of us do this because we want to be an American; we want to leave the war behind. We also need to feed our families.”

Ajmal Ghani, chairman of the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce, said he is worried about the impact of disappointing such hopes.

“As an American and a native of Afghanistan who has the best interest of both countries, it is imperative that trust not be broken,” he said. “You have to give credit to the American and international effort but you must build trust from the bottom to the top if anything is to succeed in Afghanistan.”

Mr. Ghani has tried for three years without success to get the Bush administration to open a visa section at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Afghans applying for a U.S. visa currently have to travel to Pakistan to apply. For many Afghan citizens, the cost and distance are too great, Mr. Ghani said.

“My worst fear is that the U.S. and international forces will leave,” said the Kabul interpreter. “If Afghanistan falls into the hands of the Taliban again, everyone who worked for the international forces will be killed.”

Those fears appear to be justified.

Interpreters on edge

As fighting increased over the summer in desolate eastern Paktika province, so did deaths of Afghans working for Americans.

One interpreter, whose name is being withheld to protect his family, was kidnapped by insurgents shortly after he began work in the province in late May.

In an effort to make an example out of him, the militants poured acid onto his body and then shot him through the mouth. His body was later recovered, and his fate left many other interpreters on edge.

“It was a horrible death,” said an interpreter who works for the U.S.-led coalition in Khost province and uses the alias “Sean” to shield his identity from insurgents. “We begged him not to go because the area was so dangerous, but he went.”

Neither the Defense Department nor the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) provided a figure for the number of Afghan interpreters killed since the start of the war in 2001.

“We don’t track them,” said Lt. Col. Mark Wright, a Pentagon spokesman.

Lt. Col. Goetz Haffke, a spokesman for the ISAF in Kabul, said the forces’ policy was “not to release troop or civilian casualty numbers.”

Earnings feed economy

Abdul finished scrubbing a long cafeteria table in the dining room of the Salerno base.

Wearing a paper hat inscribed with “Abdul #1,” he showed pride in a job that pays $3 a day. It is more than he would make in Khost city, he said.

The quiet Pashtun man is one of hundreds of Afghan day workers at the basewhose earnings are crucial to the local economy.

“God willing the international coalition won’t leave until we are free,” said Mohammed, a shopkeeper who works in Salerno’s bazaar. “If we are abandoned, who knows what will happen?” At sunset, the laborers leave by foot to go to their villages. They walk nearly a mile from the U.S. guard post to a final checkpoint manned by Afghan national army guards.

It is the same gate where 10 Afghan workers were killed and another 13 were wounded last week when insurgents detonated a vehicle car bomb. The following day, more than 30 militants attempted to storm the base.

Insurgent attacks have intensified in the region in the past month, and the physical and psychological scars of war are spreading.

“This is what we have to live with every day,” said Saif, who works with Sean. He also uses an alias to protect his family from the Taliban.

In June, insurgents mounted numerous rocket attacks from the hillsides surrounding Salerno. U.S. troops responded with howitzer fire that lighted the night sky and lasted until sunrise.

Afghans are accustomed to bloodshed after nearly 30 years of conflict: the Soviet invasion of 1979; the war between U.S.-backed mujahedeen fighters and the Soviet army of the 1980s; the civil war among Afghan militias that followed the Soviet defeat; and the rise and fall of the Taliban in the 1990s into 2001.

“We’ve grown up in war,” said Sean. “Many of the [American] soldiers here are my friends, and we’ve learned to trust each other. I hope to go to Virginia one day. I have already applied for my visa, but it’s not gone through, so far.”

Privately, U.S. officials concede that most Afghans’ dreams will not be realized.

“I think we’ve promised a lot of people in Afghanistan visas that they may never get,” said one U.S. military official in Afghanistan, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. “Whenever I talk to an Afghan [interpreter], they tell me they’ve applied but don’t know when they’ll be approved. I sometimes think that the answer is never.”

Taking precautions

Sean and Saif grabbed the keys to their small car and headed out from the base and into Khost city, the center of business life in the province.

Large potholes left by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) along the roadway demonstrated the ongoing war between the insurgents and international forces. Inside the city, the Taliban remain watchful, Sean said.

“Even when we are not with the military, we are worried,” Saif said as he drove past the city’s central bazaar.

Along the main thoroughfare, the car bounced over broken pavement and loose asphalt. Saif worked his way around donkey carts, children and ornately decorated “jingle trucks” with silver bells that dangled from the back bumpers.

The sound of India’s “Bollywood” music in the distance blended in with the noise of the traffic and the people.

“This road is not easy to travel on,” Sean said. “Do you know how many times people have been killed by IEDs on this road?”

Saif, who has two young children, had to take extra precautions for his family when people in his village suspected his identity as a translator.

He reinforced the wall around his house and a family member is always on watch.

“There is always someone awake at my house all night long,” said Saif. “We take shifts; it is not an easy life to live.”

Omar, another translator for the U.S.-led coalition, also would like to take his family to the United States “someday,” he said. Omar, who works closely with Provincial Reconstruction Teams in the east, said his decision already has put his family in danger.

Nearly six months ago, he had to leave his tribal village with his wife and children after militants exploded a bomb at the front door of his house.

“Every day, we are at risk, like the coalition,” he said. “Our families are at risk, and even our children are at risk.”

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