Mohammad was 20 years old in 2009 when his father was abducted, tortured, and killed by the Taliban. Three years later, he was forced to leave his life savings of $35,000 at his father’s grave—ransom money militants demanded in exchange for his kidnapped three-year-old brother.
His crime was being an Afghan interpreter working for the U.S. military. The young Afghan, nicknamed “Yoda” by the Marines he served with, had been shot twice and hit with an IED during his service. He applied for a U.S. visa in 2010, and is still waiting for approval.
Mohammad’s story is not unique. Like many Afghan allies working alongside U.S. troops, Mohammad believes the Taliban targeted him because he was a “friend of the Americans,” as militants wrote in his brother’s ransom note last February.
Taliban “retribution” attacks against America’s Afghan military allies have been a growing problem in recent years, according to refugee advocates.
“Mohammad’s case is particularly heart-wrenching, but this is not uncommon,” said Katherine Reisner, national policy director at the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project. “Individuals will be ambushed, their houses will be burned down, children killed.”
Mohammad, who has been waiting for his U.S. visa to be approved for three years, said he moved his family to Pakistan after the February kidnapping of his brother, but still fears for their safety. While he was able to rescue his three-year-old brother, he said the spate of “retribution” attacks like his has discouraged many Afghans from working with the U.S. military.
“Those kinds of situations are happening where they find out [you work for the Americans],” Mohammad said in an interview on Wednesday. “The first time they didn’t give me a warning … they just took my dad away and they killed him.”
“At the beginning [of the war] there was no problem,” he added. “These problems start[ed] from 2010 and 2009.”
Afghan and Iraqi interpreters often fight side by side with U.S. troops, and they are prime targets for the Taliban. The U.S. government does not provide statistics on retribution attacks against local allies, but the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies estimates more than 1,000 interpreters have been killed in Iraq.
Refugee advocates say the attacks will only increase as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan and leaves local allies to fend for themselves.
“They keep getting assassinated because of inaction on our government’s part,” said the List Project’s Kirk Johnson. “It’s not going to stop, it’s only going to get worse. … The bases that these interpreters are living on are being dismantled around them.”
Congress has authorized the State Department to annually grant 5,000 visas to Iraqi interpreters and their families, and 1,500 to Afghan interpreters and their families. But the State Department has only dispensed a small percentage of these visas, and the List Project estimates that as many as 7,000 Afghan applicants are stuck in the backlog.
The slow process and lack of transparency has frustrated many U.S. service members who worked alongside these interpreters, prompting them to take their cases to the media and congress.
Marine Corps Capt. Adrian Kinsella has been advocating in his capacity as a private citizen for Mohammad, who was an interpreter for his platoon in 2010.
“I could always rely on [Mohammad] to tell me when the Afghan person with whom we were speaking was lying or hiding something, and I could count on him to rephrase my questions if the way I had phrased them was culturally inappropriate,” wrote Kinsella in a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer on Sept. 22. “Mohammad was so good at his job and at keeping up with us that my Marines quickly adopted him as one of their own, which is no small compliment.”
“I have found the paperwork and frustration involved in this process to often rise to a Kafkaesque level,” he continued. “How could someone like Mohammad successfully navigate such a process on his own, much less without such a determined sponsor? On more strategic lines, how can America attract and retain interpreters of his caliber in the future when we do not fulfill our end of the bargain now?”
The Washington Free Beacon previously reported on the stalled visa application of an Afghan translator known as “Hafez” who helped rescue U.S. troops alongside Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer. Despite recommendation letters from several U.S. commanders, Hafez’s application has remained in bureaucratic limbo.
There are potential downsides to going public. Janis Shinwari, an Afghan interpreter who helped save the life of a Purple Heart recipient Matt Zeller, recently had his visa revoked just days after receiving it.
Zeller, who helped bring media attention to Shinwari’s case, told the Washington Free Beacon he believes the Taliban called in a phony tip to sabotage the application.
However, some advocates say the recent media scrutiny has forced the State Department to take the concerns about the visa programs more seriously. The State Department issued a statement this week supporting an extension of the Iraqi visa program, which was set to expire on Monday.
“If the Iraq [special visa] legislation is not extended by September 30, 2013 … [we’re] sending a message, not only to the Iraqi applicants who have helped us, but also to applicants in Afghanistan whose program is due to terminate in one year, that we are not committed to those who place their lives on the line to assist our national interests,” said the State Department. “Furthermore, we would be sending this message to people around the world whom we may ask in the future to do the same.”
“That is definitely the strongest statement of that kind that I have seen, and we were really delighted to see it,” said Reisner. “It communicates an understanding that they are concerned for the same reason that we are.”
The visa programs also have bipartisan support in congress. The House and Senate came together during the budget gridlock this week to push through legislation temporarily extending the Iraqi visa program until a longer extension can be passed in the Defense Authorization bill.
But advocates point out that this does nothing to resolve the systemic problems and backlog within the programs.
Johnson said State Department officials have little incentive to grant visas because they do not want to be held responsible for approving an applicant who turns out to be a national security threat. Without direct action from the White House, he said, backlogs will continue to plague the programs.
“You have to gauge your eyes out to not see the dangers that these [Afghans and Iraqis] are facing,” said Johnson. “I don’t know how many more of these people have to be assassinated before this White House finally does something and acts.”
“Nobody can claim that we didn’t know what was going on,” he added. “Nobody can claim we didn’t realize what’s been happening.”