Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) as a veteran of the Afghan war. She served in Iraq. This version has been updated.
KABUL — A growing number of Afghan interpreters who worked alongside American troops are being denied U.S. visas allotted by Congress because the State Department says there is no serious threat against their lives.
But the interpreters, many of whom served in Taliban havens for years, say U.S. officials are drastically underestimating the danger they face. Immigration lawyers and Afghan interpreters say the denials are occurring just as concerns about Taliban retribution are mounting because of the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. forces.
“There are tons of Talibs in my village, and they all know that I worked with the Americans,” said one interpreter, Mohammad, who asked that his last name not be published for security reasons. “If I can’t go to the States, my life is over. I swear to God, one day the Taliban will catch me.”
Mohammad received a U.S. form letter saying he had failed to establish that there was a “serious threat” to his life. He had explained in his application that the Taliban had spotted him on the job and had spread word in his village that he was a wanted man.
In one particularly dangerous assignment, he was asked to mediate between U.S. soldiers and local residents after an American convoy ran over and killed an Afghan child, he said.
In the initial phase of the visa process, “an applicant has to establish that he or she has experienced or is experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of employment by or on behalf of the U.S. government,” said Robert Hilton, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
He said the applications were examined by an embassy committee, which decided whether they should be forwarded to Washington.
Hilton and other U.S. officials would not explain what constitutes a “serious threat” or discuss specific cases in which applicants were denied visas.
Another interpreter who was denied a visa had worked for years at a U.S. military prison screening visitors. U.S. military officers wrote several letters stating that his job put him in particular danger because of his constant contact with the families of detained militants.
But the State Department review board said those concerns did not amount to a “serious threat,” the man said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of concerns for his safety.
A third interpreter who received a similar denial, and gave only part of his name, Naseri, survived three attacks by improvised bombs on the military units he accompanied during a five-year stint. He said he explained in a visa interview at the U.S. Embassy that he had been called a “spy and a traitor” while on patrol with his American unit and that the Taliban knew where he and his family lived. This year, he said, someone called his father and threatened to kill members of his family.
Several U.S. military officers wrote letters to the State Department about the role Naseri played.
“Every house we went into, he went into. Every firefight we went into, he went into,” said Lt. Matt Orr, who worked with Naseri in one of the most dangerous corners of eastern Afghanistan. He said he was baffled when Naseri was denied a visa.
“I feel a real sense of frustration with the bureaucratic mess that would do something like this,” Orr said.
Afghan interpreters who work with the U.S. military usually wear masks and assume phony American names to disguise their identities. But they say the Taliban often hears about their association with American forces, especially if they are from small villages where the insurgency has influence.
A former U.S. Marine interpreter named Mustafa was kidnapped and killed outside Kabul in August. His colleagues said he had completed his visa interview several days before his death. A photo of his body was posted on the page of a Facebook group that interpreters use to exchange information about their visa applications.
Since the program’s inception four years ago, 1,648 interpreters have received special immigrant visas, or SIVs, out of the 8,750 allocated by Congress.
The program has been dogged by delays and other problems. The State Department was criticized this year for temporarily revoking one interpreter’s visa without explanation and for denying other applicants based on vague accusations that they were affiliated with terrorist groups.
But the most recent spate of denials could affect a broader range of interpreters. They go to the core reason that the program exists — the threat facing Afghan men and women who worked for the U.S. government here.
Supporters of the program in Congress expressed anger over the visa denials.
“I am deeply concerned about recent reports that the threat posed to interpreters by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan is being downplayed or disregarded,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a veteran of the Iraq war, said when asked for reaction. “The current process for approving visas threatens to undermine the commitment we made to stand with them.”
Said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Armed Services Committee: “We have to keep our promise to individuals who risked their lives serving alongside our troops. Failing to act puts lives at further risk and hurts our credibility around the globe.”
More than 6,000 Iraqis have received visas through an analogous program over the past five years. Immigration lawyers representing interpreters from both countries say the “serious threat” denials have been issued only to their Afghan clients.
“For the past few months, we have been seeing an alarming number of Afghan SIV applicants denied by Embassy Kabul for allegedly ‘not facing a threat,’ ” said Becca Heller, director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which represents Iraqis and Afghans.
“These are people being hunted down by Taliban forces because of their work with the United States,” she said. “Many of them have been shot at or kidnapped, and others have hard evidence in the form of death letters and death lists from the Taliban.”
Some worry that the United States is denying the visas to prevent talented English-speaking interpreters from leaving Afghanistan. Those men and women would be assets to any long-term American presence in the country, some U.S. officials have said.
“This act could drain this country of our very best civilian and military partners: our Afghan employees,” then-U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry wrote in a February 2010 cable to then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that was obtained a year later by the Associated Press. He warned that the program could “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.”
Interpreters whose visa applications have been denied say they are puzzled by the standards being used.
“What’s a serious ongoing threat for them? Do they need someone to bring in my decapitated head?” said another interpreter, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“The Taliban posted a letter on our house saying next time I come inside my house, they will kill my whole family. That’s still not good enough?”