Having worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan for seven years, Mohammad Janis Shinwari was ecstatic when he walked out of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul this month with immigrant visas stamped on his passport and those of his wife and two children.
The joy was short-lived. As Shinwari was in the process of making travel arrangements and selling his remaining possessions, an embassy representative called him last week with an ominous request: He needed to return to the consular section promptly, passport in hand.
The State Department, it turned out, had revoked the visa for unspecified reasons. That prompted a U.S. Army officer whom Shinwari served alongside to go to war with the bureaucracy, seeking to reverse what he sees as a grave injustice.
“He became my best friend,” said Army Capt. Matt Zeller, a former Afghanistan analyst at the CIA, who maintains that Shinwari could not possibly pose a national security threat. “He is like a brother.”
The State Department has sought to revoke a small but growing number of visas it has issued to military interpreters before they travel, said Katie Reisner, the national policy director at the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which represents Iraqi and Afghan interpreters seeking to resettle in the United States. To date, the State Department has issued about 1,120 visas for Afghan linguists, a small share of the 8,750 authorized by Congress as part of the Special Immigrant Visa program.
The rare instances in which applicants are issued visas that are later canceled appear to be triggered by anonymous tips to U.S. counterterrorism hot lines. Reisner and Zeller, citing other cases, said the warnings could represent an attempt by insurgent groups to derail the immigration prospects of Afghan nationals whom they consider American agents. They fear news stories about Shinwari’s visa being issued may have motivated a tip. Similar tips have led to rejection letters that have branded interpreters with stellar military records as terrorism suspects, immigration lawyers say.
“On a systemic level, it’s a huge problem if State backtracks every time they get one of these anonymous tips,” Reisner said.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said she could not disclose why Shinwari’s visa had been revoked, but she noted that the government rescinds visas if it determines that the recipients are “inadmissible to the United States or otherwise ineligible.”
Harf said the State Department has sought to expedite the vetting of applicants, whose cases are reviewed by multiple agencies, striking a proper balance between national security concerns and regard for the threats that many face while they get cleared to travel.
“Over the past several years, we have made demonstrable progress in improving the SIV process in Iraq and Afghanistan without compromising national security,” Harf said. “We value their service in support of our mission and take the concerns of those who work with us very seriously.”
After Shinwari’s visa was issued, an anonymous tip prompted the National Counterterrorism Center to insert a warning in the database of U.S. visa holders, said Zeller, citing information that he said he received from a senior U.S. official.
Zeller, 31, advised Shinwari not to surrender his passport to the embassy last week, hoping that he might manage to get the visa reinstated by calling lawmakers and other government officials. In an e-mail to the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, Zeller argued that the last-minute reversal was illogical and warned that it was putting his friend’s life at risk.
Karin King, an official at the bureau, responded that “the actions taken in his case were not made lightly,” according to an e-mail that Zeller shared with The Washington Post. She said she understood why “these recent developments might seem perplexing” and expressed regret that legal constraints prevented her from disclosing more.
“He may be just a name and number to the broader government,” Zeller replied. “But to me, he is like family. He saved my life. If you’ve ever been in combat, you’ll know exactly what type of bond that engenders.”
Zeller met Shinwari, 36, during a firefight in Ghazni province in April 2008. The Army officer, then a first lieutenant, was pinned down by the side of a desolate road, struggling to lead his 15 men as they repelled an attack by about 45 Taliban fighters. Having fired all his grenades and running low on ammunition, Zeller said, he was starting to think that his unit would be overrun when Shinwari, part of a backup team, rushed to his rescue amid a barrage of increasingly accurate artillery fire.
“I remember thinking: This is it, this is the place where I die,” recalled Zeller, a reservist who deployed in 2008 after being called up for active duty while he was a CIA analyst working on Afghanistan.
Sneaking up from behind, Shinwari used his personal AK-47 — in contravention of rules that bar U.S. military linguists from bearing arms — to shoot two Taliban fighters who had Zeller in their sights.
“We ran back to a safe zone,” Shinwari recalled in a phone interview from Kabul. “When we got back to the base, he assigned me as his personal interpreter.”
Shinwari quit his job at a U.S. military base shortly after receiving his visa. Returning is not an option, he said, because the unit he worked for is laying off linguists as the U.S. drawdown accelerates. Shinwari said he has received numerous threats from the Taliban, including a recent message scratched on the side of his car that warned: “Your day of judgment is coming.”
Zeller said the Taliban made numerous threats against Shinwari because it got to know him well during detainee interrogations in Ghazni. Back then, the Taliban often called in tips warning about Shinwari and other linguists, the officer said. Time and again, Zeller said, U.S. intelligence personnel concluded that the defamatory information was probably false and that the threats against the interpreters’ lives were real.
Zeller, who quit his job at the CIA in 2010 in an unsuccessful bid for a seat in Congress, said he is working frantically on behalf of his friend, haunted by the fate of interpreters caught by the Taliban.
“We used to have toes and hands delivered in packages outside our base,” Zeller said.