“Individuals who believe they are in peril in their place of residence should consider leaving that location and moving to another nearby safe place, inside or outside the country.” This is the ironic auto-reply from the visa department at the American Embassy in Kabul for desperate linguists trapped in a U.S. visa limbo.
Killing interpreters is job number one for the Taliban of Afghanistan. And now that the U.S. is pulling up stakes, trusty local translators are getting left in the dust.
There are some 8,000 interpreters who have worked for Americans, and they have always faced grave danger as the Taliban’s target of choice. But with U.S. military protection disappearing, the interpreters are in more danger than ever.
Numbers are hard to come by, but anecdotal evidence suggests several targeted killings a month. This isn’t just guys getting shot out on combat patrol. These are people on their way home from work getting shot up with rocket-propelled grenades. These are people whose families are being killed because of their association with Americans.
The best hope for survival for these linguists is a one-way ticket to the USA. Thousands of applicants are caught up in an approval process that lasts more than two years. As of last fall, 5,000 were waiting to begin the process. At its current rate, the “Afghan Allies” program will issue only a fraction of the available visas before the program expires at the end of fiscal year 2013. There has been no comment from the State Department on the problem.
Congressional action has helped many Iraqi interpreters, but Afghan interpreters are out in cold. Despite manifold problems, some Iraqi interpreters have been able to get visas. But with the U.S. departure in Afghanistan looming, the problem is becoming urgent for interpreters likely to be left behind.
“In my opinion, the story in Afghanistan is a sorry, shabby echo of what’s happening in Iraq,” said Kirk W. Johnson, the founder of the List Project, an organization that assists Iraqi refugees in obtaining visas to the United States.
Some members of Congress are paying attention and plan to introduce legislation to extend visa program deadlines in Iraq and Afghanistan, and broaden visa eligibility.
“The extension and reform of these programs is a matter of national security, and these programs represent an important tool for the U.S. operations in Afghanistan,” according to a March 5 letter signed by 19 members of Congress and sent to the White House and the State Department.
Please take a moment to read Azam Ahmed’s account in the New York Times of the life-or-death struggle of one interpreter, Sulaiman, and his five-year effort to get a visa to the U.S.