AS THE American troop presence in Afghanistan winds down — the Marines recently departed Camp Leatherneck — Congress faces an important decision about the interpreters who served as the eyes and ears of the military in the long war. A program of special visas for these interpreters is expiring and, if not renewed, would leave about 9,000 people stranded. We urge Congress to act now to keep this program alive and to allocate enough visas to meet the need.
This is about keeping faith with Afghans who took risks shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. troops. They didn’t flinch when asked to enter hostile territory. They exposed themselves to retaliation from the Taliban by working for Westerners. Now the United States must not flinch from the promise to bring them to safety. The visas provide resettlement in the United States for those who demonstrated faithful and valuable service, who worked as interpreters for more than a year and who face the danger of retaliation for their employment. The risk assessment is carried out by a committee at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Congress originally approved the program in 2009, and it will sunset this year if not renewed. Previously, a parallel program in Iraq was extended.
At issue now is the pending defense authorization bill. Congressional negotiators must hammer out the differences between a House version that would provide 1,075 visas and a Senate version that would provide 4,000 a year for two years. Since the State Department estimates about 9,000 people with pending applications, we urge the negotiators to adopt the Senate language, which the administration has said should be sufficient. The Senate language would also allow a balance of unused visas to be carried forward until the end of 2016.
Another important provision in the Senate version would fix an eligibility problem for interpreters who served under the U.S. chain of command but were technically part of the International Security Assistance Force. The fix would make them eligible for the special visas. It is important not to abandon them because of a bureaucratic oversight.
Showing loyalty to Afghans who showed loyalty to the United States is not only an obligation from the past 13 years of war; it is also relevant today and tomorrow. By the end of the year, the United States will still have about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. They require interpreters every day. It would send a negative signal to them — not to mention others around the world who are inclined to work with Americans — if Congress closes the door on the special visa program.
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