For years, Afghan interpreters who risk their lives working with the American military have been promised safe haven in the form of U.S. visas that would allow them to escape from the Taliban insurgency’s cross hairs.

Now, a narrow interpretation of the relevant visa program and a lack of commitment to it in Congress are threatening to deprive longtime U.S. government employees and some of the Taliban’s top targets of the prospect of that escape route. Legislation to be voted on this week will determine whether thousands of current and former interpreters will actually receive the promised visas.

The program, already hobbled by bureaucratic delays, hit another roadblock recently when the State Department ruled that many U.S. military interpreters are ineligible for visas because they were hired by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) rather than directly through the U.S. government.

Many U.S. military officials called that a meaningless technicality. Despite being hired by the ISAF, many of those interpreters worked exclusively for the U.S. military, often receiving near-
daily threats from the Taliban.

In an article in Foreign Policy magazine, former ISAF commander Gen. John R. Allen’s political adviser, Marc Chretien, called the hurdle a “Kafkaesque bureaucratic nuance” that “reflects poorly on the United States.”

In 2009, Congress passed the Afghan Allies Protection Act to aid Afghans risking their lives for the U.S. mission. A similar program in Iraq had taken years to get off the ground, but U.S. officials vowed they would be prompt in aiding Afghan employees. As of last fall, though, only 32 of more than 5,700 Afghan applicants had received visas through the special program.

Without congressional action, the program is due to expire in September 2014, even though only a tiny fraction of the visas have been approved. Two key pieces of legislation — including vastly different pledges — are expected to be voted on this week, dictating the program’s future.

One proposal introduced in the Senate by Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) would extend the program to 2015 and grant about 5,000 visas annually. It would broaden the language of the existing visa program so that interpreters hired by the ISAF would probably be eligible, and interpreters for media organizations and non­governmental organizations would also qualify.

The other proposal, which came out of the House Armed Services Committee, also would extend the program but would cut the number of available visas by two-thirds. An amendment to that provision from several members of Congress would attempt to streamline the application process.

U.S. military officials and immigration lawyers representing Afghan interpreters say both bills mark a step forward, but they still fear that if the provisions are watered down, many interpreters could be left without protection.

“These are our allies who went out, unarmed, on patrols with our military and now face deadly reprisals from al-Qaeda and the Taliban,” said one former senior official who was not authorized to discuss the issue with reporters and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “As we draw our forces down, we cannot leave behind those who were so instrumental to our missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan, especially in the case of documented death threats and promises of reprisals.”