Thousands of Afghans and Iraqis who risked their lives in support of the American war effort now they find themselves caught in a bureaucratic backlog, applying for a special immigration program designed to help them. Nia-Malika Henderson talks to Katie Reisner from the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, and Washington Post Kabul bureau chief Kevin Sieff. (The Washington Post)
September 15, 2013

Dakota Meyer, a retired Marine sergeant, was awarded the Medal of Honor fighting alongside Fazel in the battle of Ganjigal. Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense, embedded as a media correspondent with Meyer and Fazel shortly after that battle.

Four years ago, a bleeding Afghan interpreter, Fazel, staggered out of an ambush in Ganjigal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. Trapped inside the valley were four Americans. Asked to help rescue them, he said, “I have a wife and baby. But I will go back.” Fazel returned to the battle, killed several Taliban fighters and carried out the bodies of the fallen Americans.

Since that fight, the Taliban has been determined to kill Fazel, who has served with U.S. units for five years and has received 15 certificates and letters of commendation attesting to his work record. Shortly after the ambush, Fazel applied for a visa to the United States.

Since he applied, the State Department has issued almost 2 million visas to immigrants. The visa section at State was repeatedly informed that the Taliban was hunting Fazel. But for four years, there was no movement. Last month, Fox News reported the neglect, and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the senior commander in Afghanistan, insisted that Fazel receive a visa “as soon as possible.” A few days ago, an overjoyed Fazel got his visa.

On the one hand, this is a happy ending to a nearly five-year odyssey. But it is depressing that a four-star general had to personally intervene to resolve the case of someone clearly loyal to the United States. Fazel risked the lives of his family because, in his mind, he was an American, fighting alongside his fellow grunts. Ask any company commander returning from Afghanistan, and he can tell you about another Fazel, equally deserving of a visa.

What’s happening is a failure to keep faith with those who fought beside us. The State Department has defied Congress by denying visas to thousands of interpreters who, like Fazel, fight alongside our soldiers. Congress has authorized 1,500 visas per year for Afghans who have assisted us; the State Department annually approves about 200. In a letter to President Obama, more than a dozen members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, complained that in the past five years, State has issued only 12 percent of the available visas. An analogous program for Iraq has been similarly stalemated.

To qualify for a visa, Afghan interpreters must provide recommendations from U.S. officers and be interviewed and approved by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The next step is the bottleneck: If approved there, the application must be reviewed by security committees in Washington. These panels have no incentive to say yes and a huge incentive to say no in order to avoid blame for any future incident. For example, two Iraqi refugees living in Kentucky were arrested in 2010 for shipping weapons to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. But the refugees in Kentucky had not laid their lives on the line for American soldiers; they weren’t recommended by U.S. officers who had served alongside them.

Every person granted a visa poses some risk. A dozen Saudis with visas attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. Two refugees from Russia’s Chechen conflict attacked Americans in Boston this spring. Yet last year, the State Department issued visas to more than 20,000 Saudis and 100,000 Russians — without repetitive reviews by security committees. Witholding visas for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters does not make sense; our country is discriminating against those who have proven their loyalty and work ethic.

The State Department’s reputation is hurt by its discrimination. Many of us in the military who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan rarely saw U.S. diplomats out at the district and village level. The task of nation-building was foisted upon the military, which pitched in to aid our diplomats. Our soldiers never leave a comrade behind, but State is leaving the interpreters behind. The result is that generals proffer faint praise for State when testifying before Congress but in the hallways offer searing judgments to staffers. The military helped the State Department, but State is not helping the military.

Some lawmakers have not forgotten. The National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 would extend and improve these visa programs in Iraq and Afghanistan, including strict oversight. Congress needs to pass that legislation. Because Afghan interpreters have pledged their loyalty to U.S. soldiers, they are in mortal danger as we leave. Afghanistan may end as badly as Vietnam did.

Secretary of State John Kerry threw away Vietnam decorations to display his disgust with that war. Of all U.S. officials, Kerry should be the most resolved not to see Afghanistan veterans throw away their medals in disgust because their comrades — the interpreters — were left behind. Forceful management by the State Department can fix this problem. If that is institutionally too difficult, then give the responsibility to Gen. Dunford. Thousands of combat veterans are watching.