Over 300 Afghan Translators and Family Killed While Serving the U.S.
In the nineteen years since the attacks of September 11, 2001, Afghan interpreters have assisted and protected American servicemembers fighting in their home country. Yet their safety has always been an afterthought. Now, in its effort to withdraw from Afghanistan, the United States is failing its moral obligation to resettle them, instead, leaving many to face an uncertain but doubtless dangerous future under an empowered Taliban. If the U.S. government does not act soon to expedite the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, it risks abandoning over 18,000 Afghans. They have risked their lives for Americans and earned the right to live safely in the United States.
In Afghanistan, the United States depends on local citizens with language skills and cultural knowledge to provide informed interpretation between U.S. forces and Afghan citizens. Locals who work for the U.S. government have become enemies of some of their countrymen -- the Taliban, ISIS, and other terrorist and insurgent groups -- risking death at the hands of those who consider them traitors or collaborators. While the United States still has a military presence in Afghanistan, it can offer some protection to local employees and their families.
But in the vacuum formed during the impending withdrawal, such protection can give way to retribution by those adversaries--especially under the umbrella of a future Taliban-controlled or influenced government. That threat is particularly acute for the thousands of former interpreters and their families who have completed their service and applied to resettle in the United States through the SIV program. For many, the 14-step SIV application process takes over three years to complete before they can depart Afghanistan, forcing interpreters and their families to wait, exposed to attack, as their applications are processed.
The U.S. government does not track casualties among SIV applicants waiting in Afghanistan for their applications to be processed. However, another nongovernmental organization named the Red-T estimated that at least 1,000 linguists had been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. And since 2014, our nonprofit organization, No One Left Behind, has cataloged over 300 cases in which insurgents and terrorist groups have killed interpreters or family members--many waiting for visas to the United States--. That threat has not subsided as discussions of peace have echoed in the halls of Washington and Doha. Each day, we receive dozens of emails and Facebook messages from former interpreters citing death threats and assassination attempts.
That makes resettlement to the United States for those at risk an imperative of this moment. Last Week, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo met with Taliban leaders in an unprecedented show of support for their participation in Afghan peace talks, even as the Taliban have been implicated in bounty killings of U.S. service members and have violated their ceasefire agreement with the United States. While his department accelerates withdrawal from Afghanistan, it should also take corresponding steps to accelerate the resettlement of Afghan interpreters before U.S. forces withdraw by 2021.
The State Department has argued it made SIVs a priority, but the program remains significantly under-resourced and poorly executed. A recent State Department Office of Inspector General audit of the Afghan SIV program reported that only one person was processing security checks for the entire backlog of 18,000 applications, among numerous other challenges and deficiencies. Since that assessment, the SIV program has been further slowed by funding challenges in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, threatening a preventable humanitarian and moral disaster.
The U.S. government has numerous tools at its disposal to protect interpreters, their families, and SIV applicants. First, U.S. commitments to the Taliban and to any future Afghan government must be tied to a commitment to protect former Afghan employees of the U.S. government. The U.S. government must send a clear and unmistakable message to the Taliban and ISIS that attacks on former U.S. government interpreters and employees must stop immediately. Second, the State Department must urgently expedite the processing of SIV applicants, no matter the cost in resources. The entire backlog of 18,000 applicants plus new ones in the next year--or as long as Congress authorizes the program--must be adjudicated prior to the U.S. military withdrawal in 2021.
In a worse case scenario, the U.S. government can make contingency plans to undertake a mass relocation of Afghan SIV applicants who have passed security screening. There is precedent for such dramatic action. When South Vietnam fell in 1975, the U.S. military evacuated and resettled 130,000 Vietnamese refugees who, by virtue of their employment or affiliation with the United States, faced torture, imprisonment, or worse by the North Vietnamese. And in 1996, as Kurds in northern Iraq faced retribution by Saddam Hussein for their work with U.S. aid groups, U.S. forces airlifted over 6,000 to Guam.
Active U.S. service members, veterans, and all Americans can do their part to help by asking their representatives and senators in Congress to submit official inquiries about the SIV program to the Departments of State and Homeland Security. By taking action, they will be joining No One Left Behind, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America, Special Forces Association, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Military Officers Association of American, and Wounded Warrior Project--who in total represent five million U.S. veterans from every conflict--in calling for the U.S. government to properly recognize the sacrifices of Afghan interpreters.
As Governor Thomas H. Kean and Representative Lee H. Hamilton has said, "As former chairman and vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, we encourage the Congress to do everything in its power to keep the nation's promise to Afghan and Iraqi combat translators and to ensure these intrepid partners can achieve the American Dream. Special Immigrant Visas recipients from Afghanistan and Iraq loyally protected our men and women in uniform. Many directly saved American lives. Their future success will help to prevent the continued growth of Islamist terrorism - the third goal identified by the 9/11 Commission. A great nation keeps its promises." Let’s keep this one.
Janis Shinwari served for eight years as an interpreter. He became a U.S. citizen on June 29th, 2020. Annalise Myre and Amelia Myre conducted interviews and research. The authors serve on the Board of Directors of the nonprofit No One Left Behind. All served in Afghanistan.