KABUL — Of the more than 5,700 Afghans who have applied for U.S. visas under a special program tailored for those who have supported the American war effort, just 32 have been approved, the State Department says, leaving the rest in limbo as foreign forces begin their withdrawal.
The growing, protracted backlog threatens to undermine congressionally approved legislation, as well as the longstanding guarantee that the United States will protect Afghans whose contribution to the American mission has left them hunted and vulnerable.
In 2009, the Afghan Allies Protection Act allocated 7,500 visas for Afghans employed by the U.S. government, mostly as military interpreters. The legislation was intended to respond to a prospect that the interpreters knew well: Without a swift escape route, they would be high-priority targets for the Taliban after the American war effort draws down.
But the channel established by Congress has been far from swift. Some interpreters say they have waited years with hardly a word from the State Department about their applications. The U.S. embassy’s visa office in Kabul has been badly understaffed, according to immigration attorneys who have worked on interpreters’ cases.
The long wait has been disheartening to thousands of men and women critical to the American mission, many of whom serve on the front lines with U.S. troops. Since 2007, at least 80 interpreters have been killed in combat.
Until late 2011, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul did not process a single visa under the Afghan Allies program, according to the State Department. Before then, interpreters were asked to travel to Islamabad — a precarious journey for Afghans working with the U.S. military — to complete their applications. Even there, few visas were granted.
U.S. officials acknowledge that the program was not prioritized in the years after its establishment.
“We didn’t plan for an increase in staffing or resources . . . and there was a pent up demand,” said one U.S. embassy official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
But after a slow start, U.S. officials say they now have the resources to handle the backlog.
“It’s absolutely a top priority for us now,” the U.S. official said.
When the Afghan Allies program was established, members of Congress said there was urgency behind the legislation. But some officials at the U.S. embassy in Kabul expressed concern that that program could remove from Afghanistan talented local employees at a time they were sorely needed.
“This act could drain this country of our very best civilian and military partners: our Afghan employees,” former Ambassador Karl Eikenberry wrote in a February 2010 cable to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that was obtained a year later by the Associated Press. He went on to warn 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.”
About 400 Afghan interpreters have received visas through other immigration programs. But those programs largely dried up by 2010, when the Afghan Allies legislation was originally supposed to be implemented.
Farhat, who would only allow his last name to be used because he fears for his safety, is among those living in limbo due to the backlog. He said he has been working as an interpreter for the U.S. Army for three years, since he was 18. It was the best paying job he could find. It was also the most dangerous.
While he was translating Pashto in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban had begun its resurgence, killing anyone seen as sympathetic to the U.S.-led war effort.
Insurgents sent letters to Farhat’s family, he said. “You’re an infidel,” they said. “You are killing Muslims.”
They kidnapped his cousin and called Farhat to say simply, “We warned you.” His cousin was eventually freed by Afghan police, Farhat said, but the threats kept coming.
Farhat said he could think of only one option. He would apply for an American visa for himself and his wife. When he applied in 2009, Farhat seemed a perfect candidate: a speaker of nearly unaccented American English, a man who had risked his life countless times for the U.S. mission.
But three years later, he’s still waiting for a visa. He checks the status of his application online almost every day. It always says the same word: “Pending.”
“My life is on the line here, and I keep waiting and waiting,” Farhat said.
For many interpreters, the easiest part of the visa application is citing the threats against their lives.
One of Farhat’s colleagues, Atiqullah, wrote about the time insurgents chased him in his truck, firing AK-47 rounds, destroying the vehicle and nearly killing him.
Another colleague, Irshadullah, described how a Taliban member called his father’s cellphone and said, “If your son doesn’t stop working with coalition forces, we’re going to remove his head from his body and burn your house.”
To protect their identity, many interpreters use aliases when they’re at work in the field. Almost all of them have chosen thoroughly American names: Joe, Eric, Mark, Danny. They’ve spent years gleaning anecdotes about American culture, reading old surfing magazines, learning the relative merits of the East and West Coast and listening to country music.
“I can’t wait to go to Vegas,” Farhat said.
U.S. military officials say they’re frustrated the visas have not come more quickly.
“The visa process is a black hole,” said one U.S. military official in Afghanistan who has helped 30 interpreters apply for visas. “We haven’t heard a word about a single application. From what I’ve seen, they aren’t processing anything.”
Iraqi interpreters encountered some of the same bureaucratic roadblocks when they tried to secure U.S. visas before American troops withdrew at the end of 2011. Congress set aside 5,000 visas annually for Iraqi interpreters in 2007, but only a small fraction of those were issued in the first years of the program.
It wasn’t until the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that the program was implemented effectively, according to immigration attorneys. Afghans say they hope they don’t have to wait until 2014, when foreign troops are slated to withdraw, to get their visas.
“I get contacted daily by Afghan interpreters and the Americans they served beside, terrified about the consequences of not receiving their visas before the military withdrawal,” said Becca Heller, the director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.
During the three years Farhat has waited for a visa, he’s seen the size of the U.S. military presence rise and fall. Now he's watching as bases are closed and downsized. He worries about the worst case scenario: What if the Americans leave before he gets his visa?
“I can’t stop thinking about it,” he said. “I knew I would have to wait, but I never expected to wait this long.”