Veterans' Advocates Slam White House for Lack of Plan to Evacuate Afghan Interpreters

Afghan withdrawal could put interpreters at risk for Taliban retribution attacks

An Afghan interpreter with the U.S. Army's 4th squadron 2d Cavalry Regiment helps to question a villager during a joint patrol with soldiers from the Afghan National Army (ANA) March 5, 2014 near Kandahar, Afghanistan. / Getty Images
June 7, 2021

Veterans' advocates are blasting the White House for refusing to evacuate thousands of Afghan military interpreters who worked for American troops and who could be left at the mercy of the Taliban as the U.S. military withdraws this summer.

Ahead of the Sept. 11 military withdrawal deadline, which President Joe Biden announced in April, the administration has yet to address its plans to handle the backlog of 18,000 Afghan interpreters who have applied for U.S. visas through a special State Department program. Many of the Afghans—who serve as language and cultural translators for American soldiers, including during combat—are likely to face retribution attacks from the Taliban if they are left behind.

At least 300 interpreters have been killed in Afghanistan due to their work for the U.S. military since 2016, according to James Miervaldis, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and chairman of the No One Left Behind advocacy group for veterans and interpreters. He expressed frustration with the administration’s failure to come up with a plan.

"Not a peep [from the White House]. Nothing," Miervaldis told the Washington Free Beacon. "Everyone’s pretty much in the dark…. We are very unclear what their plans are for this backlog."

Around 18,000 Afghans have pending applications for special immigrant visas, a bureaucracy-plagued State Department program for Afghan and Iraqi translators. Since the start of the program in 2006, the department has approved around 16,000 applicants—meaning it would have to issue more visas in the next three months than it has for the past 15 years.

The White House and the Pentagon appeared to clash over the urgency of the issue last week, after Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military was developing plans to evacuate the interpreters and other Afghan allies ahead of the withdrawal.

The White House refuted this, telling Fox News last week "we have no plans for evacuations at this time" and indicating the State Department visa program was the only avenue open for Afghans.

The special immigrant visa program has been criticized as inefficient due to understaffing and bureaucratic obstacles, and interpreters have been murdered by the Taliban after spending years waiting for approval. In 2015, the Free Beacon reported on a translator for the U.S. Marine Corps named Sakhidad Afghan, who was tortured and killed by militants after four years on the visa waiting list.

Former Free Beacon editor Aaron MacLean, a Marine officer who worked with Afghan when the translator was assigned to his rifle company in 2010, said the interpreter was "a good young man who did his job well, was as brave as any Marine, and came under fire as much as any Marine in Marjah."

Miervaldis said his group isn’t relying on the administration to move forward with an evacuation plan.

"My understanding is plans in the Pentagon don’t just happen overnight. There’s a multi-month process and review, so while we appreciate the [Department of Defense] putting plans together, it’s almost too late," said Miervaldis.

Miervaldis said advocates are looking at other options and have called on the State Department to work with third-party countries with U.S. military bases—such as Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates—to safely house the interpreters while they are waiting for their visas to be approved or denied.

"There’s no need to keep them in Afghanistan to do the paperwork," Miervaldis said, adding that he has "not heard any movement" on that proposal yet.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.