The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Former interpreters for U.S. troops wait out the State Department — and the Taliban — as visas decline

The number of visas issued have dropped sharply amid heightened scrutiny by the Trump administration

Naseri, who worked as an interpreter for U.S. forces, moved in with his wife’s family in Kabul because residents in his village frowned upon his work with the Americans. In 2017, he was granted a special U.S. visa but then was turned around in Dubai and put on a flight back to Afghanistan. Today, he lives in hiding. (Andrew Quilty for The Washington Post)

KABUL — He does not take unnecessary trips, but before he steps into his car, he contorts his body to inspect the chassis for magnetic bombs.

The man, 32, was an interpreter for U.S. troops in Afghanistan for seven years, much of that time with an ear pressed to a radio to intercept Taliban chatter that officers said provided vital intelligence. In 2013, following two militant attempts to kill or capture him, he applied for a special visa for Afghans endangered because of their work for the United States. He spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his life.

His plans to settle in Texas have been set adrift amid the Trump administration’s heightened scrutiny for issuing visas. Last year, 1,649 such visas were approved for Afghans — a 60 percent drop from the previous year. This was, by far, the biggest decline in the program’s 10-year existence.

The challenge to secure such visas is not entirely new. The issuance of special visas dropped by 30 percent in 2015 — a result of changing security measures implemented by the Obama administration, interpreter advocates say. 

However, there is a renewed sense of urgency to provide safe haven for Afghans who have been instrumental in helping U.S. forces, advocates say, now that the Taliban has been resurgent in the country amid uncertainty about a potential U.S. troop pullout. 

Many interpreters are “expressing a profound fear and imminent threat,” said Kirt Lewis, the program director for No One Left Behind, an interpreter advocacy group.

Since the creation of the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009, nearly 16,000 principal Afghan applicants have been approved for visas, according to State Department data.

Congress has not allocated new visas for 2019, and advocates warn that continued delays will imperil the 19,000 applicants still waiting.

The delays are significant. Congress required the State Department to take no longer than nine months to complete visa claims in the 2014 defense spending bill, but the average wait time is 23 months, according to the most recent data released last summer.

It is difficult to pinpoint how many interpreters have been targeted and killed, advocates say. In 2014, the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) estimated that one interpreter was killed every 36 hours, but cautioned that the number might be outdated; a new estimate could not be done.

“Every day of this slowdown in processing exposes more and more allies to reprisals from the Taliban and other hostile militant groups,” said Adam Bates, policy counsel at IRAP, a legal advocacy group.

The State Department could not provide comment because of the partial government shutdown, a spokesman said.

The interpreter has been frustrated that his efforts to protect U.S. service members have not been reciprocated.

In one nighttime convoy in Helmand province in 2006, a militant leader radioed his men to prepare for an attack. The interpreter passed the message on to the U.S. commander.

Enemy gunfire erupted minutes later, as soldiers watched tracers streak in night-vision green. One U.S. soldier was killed in the ambush, but that kind of advance warning routinely “saved lives,” according to Joseph Cannon, who worked with the interpreter as an Army officer.

This interpreter “served his country. He served our country,” Cannon said.

Why the United States cannot in turn protect him  has perplexed the interpreter.

“This is not justice for those who supported you,” he said. “If it takes longer, if it takes years, we will witness more interpreters killed.”

Spartacus — the call sign given to one Afghan interpreter — was one such casualty. Spartacus was a walking Rosetta Stone, streaming Dari, Pashto and English between U.S. and Afghan troops during firefights. He worked alongside Special Forces in mountain-
knotted Kapisa province in 2007, said Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a former Green Beret. 

“Without [interpreters], you might as well deploy without radios,” Waltz said. 

Spartacus applied for asylum in the United States, but in 2008, militants dragged him and male relatives out of his home and executed them, Waltz said.

Seemingly trivial bureaucratic foul-ups have also put interpreters in potential danger. Naseri — a different interpreter — had the visa he needed to escape Afghanistan. Then, he didn’t.

He survived countless ambushes in the more than five years he spent interpreting for U.S. troops. He carried an AK-47 assault rifle on patrols and fired at ghostlike insurgents attacking coalition troops in the Korengal, a valley that rips through the Hindu Kush like a viper in tall grass. 

But a transfer to Bagram air base led in 2010 to a fateful series of events. He was sent on patrol in his home village nearby. Rumors swirled. When a suspected militant was seized, neighbors accused Naseri of being a spy who outed him, and word got around.

“They hate interpreters more than Americans,” Naseri, 31, said of the Taliban. He asked The Post to use only part of his name for fear of militant retribution.

He applied for a visa five years ago and received generic denials twice, said his attorney, Amber Murray, though he successfully contested both decisions.

In June 2017, Naseri, his wife and three children were ecstatic: Their visas were issued. 

Naseri sold nearly everything he had — his car, furniture, clothes, appliances, his children’s toys — and flew to Dubai with his wife and three young daughters on a flight bound for Houston.

Then he was stopped in the airport. There was a problem with their visas, but no explanation. 

“My wife was crying,” Naseri said. “She told me, ‘If they send you back to Afghanistan, [the Taliban] will know about you going to America.’ ”

Murray contacted the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which was unaware of the issue. “Unfortunately, this does happen from time to time,” an embassy staff member wrote in an Oct. 5 email obtained by The Post.

Naseri was forced to return to Afghanistan days later. Soon after, according to an Oct. 31 email Murray sent to the embassy, “members of the Taliban approached Mr. Naseri’s house attempting to climb over the fence where they were fortunately deterred from entry by the barking of Mr. Naseri’s dog. When Mr. Naseri’s father came to the door, the Taliban affiliates demanded to know Mr. Naseri’s whereabouts and threatened to physically harm his son saying they would ‘catch’ Mr. Naseri son.”

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul referred questions to consular officials in Washington, who did not return comment because of the shutdown.

“These guys were trusted to be in one of the most austere environments to fight to the death with Americans, if need be,” said John Farris, a former Marine officer who worked with Naseri. “We became brothers out there.” 

Naseri remains in hiding more than a year later. Farris has pressed lawmakers for help to bring him to Houston, where he can help Naseri settle. 

“I’ll be happy to finally see him on U.S. soil,” Farris said.

Advocates and former interpreters worry that a perception of abandoning former interpreters will fray trust abroad and that enemies like the Taliban will score a propaganda victory.

“It sends a message the United States can’t be trusted to keep its word,” said Waltz, the Florida lawmaker. “That puts our forces in jeopardy.”

Farris worries for Naseri, especially if there is a hasty pullout of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

“Interpreters will be the first ones to die,” he said, “and blood will be on the U.S. government’s hands for that.” 

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