Visa Limbo and Fearful Future for the International Coalition’s Afghan Allies

Author’s note: The names of the Afghans mentioned in this piece have been changed to protect their safety and privacy.

Kabul, Afghanistan – With the international community’s involvement in Afghanistan winding down, thousands of Afghans who worked alongside foreign soldiers and civilians at risk of being left behind in a worsening war and becoming easy prey for militants. Denied visas to relocate abroad, they feel betrayed by the governments and organizations to which they dedicated years of work in the country’s most hazardous jobs. As their country sinks deeper into violence, they worry that it is only a matter of time before they are counted among the war dead.

Last summer, my friend Hassan described the defining moments of the seven years he spent as an interpreter for the US Army. In American-accented English, he told me about the practical jokes the interpreters and American soldiers played on each other; about the time he was asked to put pressure on an Afghan soldier’s chest wound and felt the soldier’s life ebb away through his fingers; about the day his fiancé asked him to quit, telling him she wanted him to live long enough to see their wedding day.

Hassan also recounted a chilling brush with the Taliban’s drive to kill Afghans working for the government and international military forces. During a journey from Kandahar to Kabul in the winter of 2009, Hassan’s bus was stopped by Taliban fighters at an illegal checkpoint along the way. All of the men of soldiering age, all dressed in civilian clothing, were ordered off the bus by gunmen who accused them of being members of the Afghan National Army and of working with foreign troops. Hassan felt his chest tighten as he walked off the bus. “I thought, ‘this is how I’ll die,” he told me.

As the other passengers stared helplessly out the windows of the bus, one the fighters barked at the men to remove their shorts. The reasoning behind this demand was simple, Hassan explained: the Taliban were looking for t-shirt tan lines. In Afghanistan, t-shirts are associated with the armed forces and a t-shirt tan line is taken as evidence of collaboration.

When the Taliban didn’t find tan lines on the young men, they ordered their prisoners to take off their pants as well, so they could check for military-issued underwear.

“Lucky me,” Hassan laughed bitterly, “I didn’t have a tan and I wasn’t wearing underwear.”

Before the Taliban could decide their next move, one fighter’s phone rang.  Hassan couldn’t make out what the caller said. Whatever the message was, it spooked the fighters and they fled with their weapons. The men from the bus, including Hassan, were left shivering in the cold and stunned by their survival.

“When powerful people are being assassinated in the middle of Kabul and the police can’t do anything to stop it, I wonder how long it will be before the Taliban come for people like me,” Hassan said, referring to the Taliban’s campaign of high profile attacks and assassinations in the capital over the summer months. “I have nightmares of them breaking into my house to kill me. People like me have no future here.”

When I told my local journalist friend Farooq about Hassan’s close call in Zabul, Farooq lowered his eyebrows and grimaced. “That kind of thing is common,” he said. He then told me the story of his friend Wakil.

During a bus journey through Maidan Wardak province, Taliban fighters singled out Wakil and dragged him out of the bus. Once outside, they accused him of working with the American military. The young man swore he had never associated with foreign troops, that he was a pious Muslim –with a long beard even – and that he was just trying to reach Kabul for a wedding. The Taliban shoved a cell phone in Wakil’s face. Displayed on the screen was a blurry photograph of him translating for a group of American military officers several years before. One fighter bound Wakil’s hands and forced him to kneel in the dirt. Another drew a knife.

In that instant, women on the bus began wailing loudly and one elderly woman rushed outside and begged the Taliban to spare Wakil’s life.  The fighters reluctantly decided not to kill their prisoner and to instead tie him to the front of the bus, just above the ground, as an alternate punishment. After a few miles, Wakil was untied and helped back inside by other passengers.

“When he got to my house in Kabul, he just sat there for a long time, shaking,” Farooq said. “When he finally started talking again, the first thing he said to me was ‘I’m done’.”

Current and former military interpreters aren’t the only Afghans finding themselves stalked by assassins. According to the latest United Nations report on the protection of civilians in Afghanistan:

The Taliban’s 2010 Code of Conduct, section 4, specifically directs the Taliban to target contractors providing services to “the enemy.” This was reemphasized in the Taliban’s April 30 statement which clearly states an intention to target contractors.UNAMA notes that contractors and other laborers are civilians and can not be targeted under international humanitarian law unless they are taking a direct part in the hostilities.  UNAMA documented the deaths of contractors by various methods including targeted killings, complex attacks, IEDs, and suicide attacks.

UN figures show that at least 127 Afghans employed as civilian contractors died at the hands of the Taliban during the first half of 2011 –approximately one killing every 36 hours. Because family members of victims, especially those living outside of major cities, risk additional violence by reporting the details of targeted killings, the actual number of deaths could be higher.

Jobs working for the United States and other coalition countries in Afghanistan pay very well by Afghan standards, but they exact a high price from the young, educated women and men who take them. The longer they stay in their positions, the dimmer their prospects of safely returning to their families and villages. Even when they try to keep the details of their work secret or vague, word inevitably gets out, and the consequences can be deadly.

Taliban members kidnapped and killed four off-duty military interpreters traveling to a wedding in Khost province last year; one of the dead men was the groom. In another instance, a 22 year old employee of for-profit development firm was gunned down outside her office in Kandahar. In the weeks leading up to her murder, the victim received threats from members of the Taliban, according to Human Rights Watch. In some areas of the embattled east and south of the country, interpreters return to their ancestral districts after saving enough money to marry and start businesses –only to be told they will be killed if they stay.

Like some 2,300 other Afghans, Hassan applied for a US visa under the Afghan Allies Program, which was designed to streamline the process of resettling at-risk Afghans who had worked for the US government and military. But, two years after its inception, the program is broken, perhaps beyond repair. It hasn’t yet granted a single visa.

Hassan’s friend Ehsan, who became an interpreter for US Special Forces when he was just 18 and served until he was 27, saw the limbo other former interpreters were stuck in and decided not to bother applying to the program at all.

“The visa process and the entire US visa policy are ridiculous,” he told me. “I wouldn’t say I regret working for US forces –there were some good people there that I will never forget—but I regret working for the US as a country, because it’s policies aren’t any better than those of Afghanistan. The wheels aren’t turning at all; even turning slowly would be progress.”

A document obtained by the Associated Press last year revealed that the backlog was due not to excessive diligence on the part of embassy employees tasked with assessing applicants’ claims, but instead was the product of a conscious choice by the US State Department to stall the processing of the applications.

“If we are not careful the SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) program will have a significant deleterious impact on staffing and morale, as well as undermining our overall mission in Afghanistan. Local staff are not easily replenished in a society at 28 percent literacy,” wrote former US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.

According to the AP:

Eikenberry said the strictest criteria should be applied to determine if employees are in danger. He also proposed changing the Afghan Allies legislation so its visas are only issued “in those rare instances where there is clear and convincing evidence of a serious threat.” That’s more limited than the “ongoing serious threat” stated in the current law.

A spokesperson for the current American ambassador in Kabul vowed in August to start breaking the backlog. By November, the embassy had issued 110 initial approval letters, the first of five steps to being approved for a visa. But none of the Afghans I know who applied to Afghan Allies are among the lucky 110. None of them have been told that their applications are being processed. No dates for interviews have been set. No additional information has been requested.

“I don’t see the US doing one bit to help the same interpreters who risked their lives to work for them,” Ehsan said. “I get a sinking feeling seeing that once you are used, they just throw you away without even caring about your life.”

With the prospect of economic collapse looming and the war grinding on, Ehsan frets over the safety of his young family and fears for the future of his two year old daughter and infant son.

“Afghanistan as a country is not doing a very great job at stabilizing itself,” he said. “Our leaders failed to do their job. I fear for my family and I want a good future for my kids, but if the current unstable situation keeps up, I don’t think that will be possible. My kids will be refugees in a nearby country, just like I was when I was a kid, and we will struggle to live –that is, if we get out alive.”

Meanwhile, Hassan waits. He wasn’t optimistic when we last discussed his application to resettle in the US with his wife, but he still wants his years of service honored with a reply.

“Even if they say no, at least that would be an answer,” he said. “I worked for them for a big part of my life. I risked my life for them with their soldiers.”

Some of the US soldiers Hassan worked with write on his facebook wall every so often, asking him when he’ll be coming to visit them. He doesn’t know what to write in response.