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Afghan man’s revoked visa draws attention to resettlement program for military interpreters

Mohammad Janis Shinwari, center, was an interpreter for the United States military in Afghanistan who was issued a visa to immigrate to the United States, which the State Department later tried to revoke. His ordeal ended Tuesday when he arrived in the United States. (Courtesy of Matt Zeller)

Of the scores of former U.S. military interpreters who have immigrated to the United States, few have had a journey as fraught as Mohammad Janis Shinwari. After waiting two years, the Afghan man was issued a U.S. visa in September, only to have it yanked days later, before he had boarded a flight, as American officials vetted a tip suggesting that he could pose a risk.

In the end, a public outcry over the visa revocation appears to have given him a lifeline.

Shinwari arrived in New York on Tuesday night, his wife and toddlers in tow. Before midnight, he made it to Washington, where Capt. Matt Zeller — whom Shinwari befriended after a firefight in Afghanistan — and two U.S. congressmen welcomed him home.

“Brother, they can never get you again,” Zeller told Shinwari after the two embraced for the first time in five years. “You’re safe.”

Shinwari’s case has drawn attention to the resettlement program for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters, which advocates say has been plagued by bureaucratic snags, arbitrary rejections and security reviews that have sometimes dragged on for years. Several U.S. lawmakers are calling on the State Department and intelligence agencies to streamline the process and clear out the backlog of pending cases.

“This is an amazing day,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), part of the welcoming party at Reagan National Airport on Tuesday night, said in a statement. “Mr. Shinwari and his family stepping foot on American soil, free from the deadly pursuit of those who would do them harm for helping U.S. soldiers, embodies a promise kept.”

A U.S. official familiar with the case said Secretary of State John F. Kerry had “intervened personally” and asked for a review of the visa revocation. The review “managed to erase concerns that had been raised,” said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.

Shinwari’s saga began in late September, when he received a call from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul asking him to return to the consular section to address a problem with the visa he had been issued days before. The State Department had revoked the visa, citing unspecified new information that officials said they received after the travel permit had been issued. The information, they said, made Shinwari ineligible for resettlement.

Zeller, a former CIA analyst, called lawmakers, journalists and senior U.S. officials to draw attention to the case. He called the visa reversal unconscionable and warned that the Taliban had identified Shinwari as a top target.

In early October, after news accounts of Shinwari’s saga surfaced, he received an e-mail from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul asking him whether he would be willing to go to a military base for an “exit interview” with his former employer, the U.S.-run military coalition. The interview, Shinwari said, was merely a pretext for a polygraph interrogation by U.S. intelligence personnel.

The interrogator took his passport and told him that he could have it back only if he passed. The man asked Shinwari whether he had been associated with extremists, whether he had plotted to carry out attacks on the United States and whether he had spied on coalition troops.

“I told him if I had wanted to harm U.S. troops, I would not have saved their lives,” Shinwari said.

After several hours, Shinwari said, the man told him that he had passed the polygraph. Days later, he was asked to come by for another “exit interview.” A second polygraph was conducted. He was told that he had passed that one, too.

Soon, an embassy representative told Shinwari that the visa on his passport was again active. He boarded a flight out of Kabul on Monday with four suitcases — one for each member of his family — and $5,000, his life savings.

“I am feeling very good,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday as he was getting settled into an apartment in Northern Virginia. “Once I have a home ready, I will look for a job.”

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