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As US pulls out, Afghan interpreters fear they will be left behind

KABUL, Afghanistan – That was a flippant comment, blunted in frustration. This may have destroyed Shoaib Walizada’s chances of securing a valuable visa to the United States.

Mr. Walizada, who performed for the US military for four years until 2013, said he once complained, using profanity, that his assigned combat jacket was too small . When the episode came to light later that year, Mr. Walizada’s preliminary visa approval was revoked for “unprofessional conduct”.

Mr. Walizada, 31, is one of thousands of Afghans formerly employed by the US government, many as interpreters, including special immigrant visa, or SIV, applications through a Department of State, were refused.

The program, established to relocate Iraqis and Afghans whose lives are threatened because they worked for the military or the US government to the United States, rejected some applicants for seemingly minor offenses and others for no specific reason. .

Today, as US troops leave and Afghans feel a growing sense of anxiety and hopelessness, visa applications have become increasingly urgent. With the Taliban profiting from the US withdrawal, many former interpreters say they are at greater risk of being killed than ever.

“I get phone calls from the Taliban saying, ‘We’re going to kill you’ – they know who I am and that I worked for the Americans,” Walizada said. He delayed the wedding because he didn’t want to endanger his wife, he said, and he moved from house to house for safety reasons.

The slightest flaw during otherwise stellar years of service can torpedo a visa application and void the commendation letters of American commanders. In the last three months of 2020 alone, according to State Department statistics, 1,646 Afghans were denied one of the special visas, which are issued to applicants who meet strict requirements and rigorous background checks. , although the interpreters would have already passed the security checks.

Among the reasons given for the denial were failure to prove the required length of service, insufficient documentation, failure to establish “faithful and valuable service” and “derogatory information”.

More than 18,000 Afghans are awaiting decisions on their SIV applications, according to the United States embassy in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Many say they are terrified, fearing that they will be denied, or approved only after being hunted down and killed.

No One Left Behind, a non-profit organization campaigning for the relocation of Afghan interpreters to the United States, says more than 300 translators or their relatives have been killed since 2014. Thousands of SIV applicants have submitted “letters threat ”they received from the Taliban. .

The visa program, first approved by Congress in 2006 for interpreters in Afghanistan and Iraq, has long been hampered by chronic delays and traffic jams. More recently, a 2020 State Department Inspector General report identified six serious shortcomings in the Afghan SIV process, including the understaffing and lack of a centralized database.

Many performers complain that they wait months, if not years, for a decision. Some joke that they have “SIV syndrome” by constantly logging into a State Department website for updates.

Nearly 21,000 visas were issued to Afghans from 2009 to March 2021, according to State Department figures. Just under 11,000 visas are still available.

Sayed Obaidullah Amin, 46, who performed for the US Marine Corps for two years, said he had been interviewed in person at the US Embassy. But he was brutally denied in 2019; a terse letter quoted “lack of faithful and valuable service” and “derogatory information associated with the matter”.

Mr Amin says he thinks the SIV program learned that, during a stint in a Marine unit, he returned to work two days late after being cleared to deal with his heart attack. dad.

State Department and Embassy officials said they could not provide the percentage of Afghan SIV applicants who were turned down.

Most of the interpreters carry thick folders filled with letters from former commanders extolling their dedication and courage. A letter from a naval officer, sent hoping to quash Mr. Amin’s rejection, praised his loyalty and steadfast service.

The officer, Andrew Darlington, a retired captain, said in an email that the embassy had not responded to his questions about the denial. “Thousands like Obaid face certain death within the next 12-24 months,” he wrote.

Waheedullah Rahmani, 27, said he had been waiting for a decision from the SIV since 2015. That year, he said, the embassy asked him to resubmit threat letters and letters of recommendation. He did, he said, but his emails to the program have since gone unanswered.

“They put me in a terrible position by not telling me if they were even dealing with my request,” he said.

Mr. Rahmani said he served for two years as an interpreter for the US military, accompanying soldiers on several firefights.

Today married and father of a daughter, he teaches English. But everyone at school knows he once worked for the US military, he said.

“If the Taliban get the upper hand, they will easily find me and kill me,” Rahmani said. “Then my wife will not have a husband and my daughter will not have a father.”

In a statement issued on Monday, the Taliban said the Afghan interpreters were “in no danger from us” but should show “remorse for their past actions and should not engage in such activities at the time. to come up”. However, the statement comes amid a campaign of targeted assassinations attributed to the Taliban that has killed dozens of civilians, officials, security forces and media workers over the past year.

The performers have served as the eyes and ears of American troops, few of whom speak Dari or Pashto or understand Afghan cultural norms. Performers helped navigate tribal and ethnic rivalries. They guided commanders through often strained partnerships with Afghan security forces, some of whom turned their guns on US troops.

Most performers covered their faces and used American nicknames such as “Mike” or “Charlie” – especially when interpreting for US servicemen interviewing Taliban detainees. Some said the detainees swore to kill them when released.

Interpreters have proven particularly valuable in meetings with local Afghan leaders, a mainstay of counterinsurgency efforts, in which U.S. commanders have worked to gain the trust of village elders and officials. But some of the Afghans were supporters of the Taliban.

Mr. Amin, for example, “helped us ‘read the play'” in meetings with local Afghans “to make sure we could spot infiltrators or Taliban spies,” wrote Captain Darlington.

Other NATO countries are speeding up their visa processes for eligible Afghans. On May 31, the British government announced its intention to relocate to Britain around 3,000 interpreters and others who have served the country’s military and government.

In the United States, members of Congress, former national security officials, and advocacy groups have pressured the State Department to speed up the SIV process and to have Congress provide more slots.

In a May 19 letter to President Biden, 20 Democratic and Republican senators noted that Afghan employees saved the lives of American soldiers and diplomats. Senators expressed support for the addition of 20,000 SIV slots and suggested evacuating applicants to a third country pending processing.

John F. Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, told reporters on June 2 that the Defense Department had “put planning resources” into a possible evacuation. He said no evacuation had been ordered but that if an order came, “we will be ready to carry out.”

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told a House committee on Monday that the State Department had not ruled out such a move.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said late last month it had temporarily increased consular staff to help speed up SIV requests amid rising demand and Covid-19 restrictions. Staff have also been beefed up in Washington, where much of the processing of applications is completed, the embassy said.

But these measures mean little to performers whose requests have been denied or remain in limbo.

Mr. Walizada was injured in the leg during an exchange of fire with the Taliban, as confirmed by a letter from his American commander. He said his injury still bothered him and that he lost weight by constantly moving to avoid detection by the Taliban.

“If the Taliban find me, they will torture me and then kill me,” he said. “It’s better if I kill myself first.”

Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.

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