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Advocates to Hold Fundraiser for Afghan Interpreters

Visa shortage hitting Afghan allies subject to retribution hardest

A U.S. soldier with an Afghan interpreter speaking to a local man / AP
• July 24, 2014 10:00 am

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The United States will withdraw almost completely from Afghanistan at the end of the year, but for many of the Afghan interpreters that served alongside U.S. combat troops, their tour of duty is far from over.

Thousands of Afghan allies—who lived, worked, and dodged Taliban fire side by side with American soldiers, under the promise that they would be eligible for U.S. visas after their service—are facing increasing threats from enemy combatants as American troops withdraw, advocates say.

Those who apply for U.S. visas have frequently found their applications stuck in opaque bureaucracy of the State Department and other government agencies, often for years.

Recent reforms have helped speed up the process—the State Department has issued nearly all of the visas it was allotted by congress for Afghan interpreters in 2014—but advocates say more needs to be done.

"The State Department ran out of visas for the first time ever in Afghanistan. It’s great but we need more," said 1st Lt. Matt Zeller, who was on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to lobby for an additional 1,000 visas for Afghans.

For Zeller, who received the Purple Heart for his service in Afghanistan, the fight for visa reform is personal. He spent years helping his Afghan interpreter, Janis Shinwari—who Zeller credits with saving his life in combat—navigate the grueling visa process.

Shinwari finally received his visa last fall, and now lives in Virginia and works for Rep. Jim Moran. However, he only received it after Zeller mounted a high-profile media campaign drawing attention to Shinwari’s plight.

Zeller and Shinwari have since founded an organization called No One Left Behind, which lobbies for visa reforms and helps Afghan translators and their families settle in to the U.S. after they arrive.

The group will host a Washington, D.C., fundraiser on Thursday, which Zeller hopes will allow it to ramp up its advocacy efforts.

According to Zeller, the work is increasingly vital due to the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan and the takeover of northern Iraq by ISIS, which leaves U.S. allies vulnerable to retribution.

"Most Iraqis who served U.S. forces, if they’re under any part of Iraq that’s controlled by ISIS, I have a hard time imagining they’re doing well," said Zeller.

The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies estimated last year that more than 1,000 interpreters have been killed in Iraq alone. Translators and their families are often targeted for threats, kidnappings, and assassinations. Zeller said many of these translators cannot even trust local security forces trained by the U.S.

"With these [Afghan allies], what upsets me the most is not the idea that their own countrymen would turn on them," said Zeller. "I just can’t imagine that we would do it. We’re the United States of America, isn’t our word good for something?"

Zeller said in the age of YouTube and Twitter, these retribution attacks are even more damaging to national security, because they discourage potential foreign allies from working with the U.S. military.

"This isn’t Vietnam we’re not going to remember this from news footage from Dan Rather or Walter Cronkite," he said. "We live in the era of YouTube, and everything else. These people are going to be killed publicly, and the world is going to watch it happen."

"We watched hundreds of thousands of our allies just get slaughtered [in Saigon], and we said ‘Never again,’" Zeller added. "The nice thing about this ‘never again’ moment is it hasn’t happened yet. It’s happening right now in Iraq, and there might still be time to save as many as we can, but in Afghanistan it hasn’t happened yet."

Published under: Afghanistan