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Fair Weather Friends

Seven years on, the United States is still failing the Iraqi and Afghan interpreters it once promised visas. And the rise of the Islamic State makes their plight more urgent than ever.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

"They are letting me down, and I don’t know why." Mohammed’s* voice resonates clearly over the spotty line, littered with "anyways" and "whatevers" picked up from his nearly 10 years working as an interpreter for U.S. forces in Iraq. Calling me from the mountains of Kurdistan, he barely sounds afraid, or even angry in the face of horrifying circumstances: Mohammed is living in hiding with his wife and four children while being hunted by the Islamic State (IS) for his work with the United States.

Mohammed took a position as an interpreter in 2003 and served with over 25 different U.S. military units, gaining him countless letters of commendation for his service and accolades from everyone from staff sergeants to three-star generals. In 2009, repeated attacks against him and his family — including one in which he and his wife were both shot — made it clear that his job might cost him his life. So he applied for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) — a permit set aside to allow Iraqis and Afghans facing mortal danger as a result of their work on U.S. war efforts to come to America. Then he waited: the process went on for several years, with little in the way of information or updates on his status.

Several years later, in August 2014, still without a visa, he was kidnapped by IS and held in an underground cell for several weeks. Eventually, through a stroke of luck, Mohammed managed to escape. But he is still waiting for that visa.

Mohammed can’t participate in the required interview process to obtain a SIV — in large part because the State department will only conduct interviews in Baghdad, where he cannot travel for fear of capture. He also cannot obtain visas for his children — they are over 21 and thus too old to be considered dependents, who would be eligible for the program — and he refuses to leave them behind to be killed. His efforts now remain at a standstill unless either the State Department decides to begin doing visa interviews in Erbil, or Baghdad someday becomes safe for travel.

Unfortunately, Mohammed’s scenario is far from unique. Delays and bureaucratic inertia remain endemic in the SIV program. Initially created under the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act in 2007-2008, this program was intended to allow for the admittance of a limited number of Iraqis and Afghans who can demonstrate their lives are threatened as a result of their work. The laws were certainly written with good intentions, but implementation has lagged woefully. As of September 2013, the U.S. had only issued 22 percent of the available Iraqi SIVs (5,500 out of 25,000 visas), and only 12 percent of available Afghan SIVs (1,051 out of 8,500). The majority or those eligible, like Mohammed, have been left hanging, often in hiding, with very few, if any options to protect themselves and their families. And as IS expands its reign in Iraq, both the dangers to these individuals and the need to maintain ties with Iraqis who support U.S. efforts are expanding exponentially.  

With the State Department in the lead, processing these visas requires support from the Department of Homeland Security, various elements of the intelligence community, and in some cases the Department of Defense. Herding all these bureaucratic cats, it appears, has simply been a bridge too far, and whatever experience was gained from bringing over 125,000 Vietnamese refugees in the spring of 1975 did not survive the intervening years. It is not only Iraqis and Afghans who have paid the price, either. Carlos, a Jordanian convert to Catholicism who served as an interpreter for the Marines in Anbar province, spoke to me from Cyprus, where he is pursuing asylum in the United States to escape the death threats that greeted him when he returned to his family after three straight years of combat service.

The good news is the failures of the SIV program have received a good bit of press in recent years, from a heart wrenching 60 Minutes segment on the near-impossibility of getting interpreters out of Iraq to VICE’s in-depth look at the dire situations facing the Afghan interpreters once employed by U.S. troops. Many of these stories have focused on interpreters who reached the United States with the help of a service member or veteran with whom they’ve served — a testament to the deep impression these men and women left on their American colleagues, but a damning reflection on the process itself. Without a strong supporter in Washington, D.C. personally pushing for a case, the chances of an interpreter getting a visa are almost nil. Even worse, without a sponsor upon arrival, the support for the lucky few who do get visas is so minimal as to leave some unemployed or even homeless.

Many of the Iraqis and Afghans who arrive under the SIV program are unable to get either housing or jobs due to a lack of credit and employment history, and are given only the barest of assistance from the U.S. government. In many cases, these refugees come to feel they would have been better off taking their chances at home than living in poverty and shame in the States, especially when many are expected to send money home to their families, or at the very least support themselves.

Along with strong advocacy from non-profits like the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Program and committed members of Congress, increasing pressure as a result of these horror stories has led to some, though certainly far from enough, movement on the issue. As of October 2013, the Iraqi SIV program appears to have finally gained some legislative traction: the 2014 version of the National Defense Authorization Act, for instance, authorizes the issuance of 2,500 visas for Iraqi applicants that will no longer come with an expiration date, as other versions of the program once did. This time, the program will only conclude once all the visas have been issued. This is great news for those who worked directly for the U.S. government (interpreters and contractors), though not for their family members or for individuals who worked for U.S. NGOs or journalists, who are covered by a different program, which has, by most accounts come to a complete standstill. In Afghanistan, where the plight of interpreters has received far less attention in Washington, even less progress has been made. The prospects remain grim for the translators themselves, and no program for family members or those who worked for NGOs or journalists was ever established.

There is more at stake here than the fates of those individuals who have found themselves caught in the cross-fire of U.S. engagement in South Asia and the Middle East. The handling of the SIV program is also emblematic of a specific type of inconsistency that can arise in U.S. relationships with foreign partners, whether they are nations, non-state actors, or individuals like these interpreters.

Looking across the spectrum of U.S. alliances, some are nakedly transactional: military aid in exchange for counterterrorism cooperation; hushed tones on human rights abuses in exchange for open trade. Others, though, are ostensibly based on a shared commitment to a higher ideological purpose: a long-standing commitment to Israeli sovereignty, for example, or aid to democratic forces in autocratic nations like Myanmar and Russia. Neither type of alliance is wrong or ineffective on its own merits — and, historically, nations have had the ability to pursue both, depending on the scenario. Where things go wrong is when an alliance initially presented as ideological is ultimately treated in a transactional manner. The resulting resentment can seriously undermine U.S. credibility.

The dismal state of the SIV program provides a small but critical example of how this type of inconsistency goes wrong. When the United States arrived in Iraq and Afghanistan, it did so with the stated intention of "stabilizing," "democratizing," and "rebuilding" — among other goals. It also needed significant help from locals in pursuing these efforts. Some of the locals who took up that mantle may have done so for financial gain, but the majority also appear to have taken U.S. rhetoric at face value, including statements about long-term commitment, the destruction of tyranny, and the promotion of freedom and human rights.

It is clear now that the U.S. over-shot on many of these goals. But the expectations of those who joined that effort, and the continued risks they face as a result of their involvement, remain high. Thus, by treating these interpreters as counterparts in a simple transaction — people who provided assistance to U.S. troops in exchange for money, and not as partners in a greater project — Washington risks confirming what many around the world already believe: that American talk about noble ideas like freedom and democracy simply provided justification for self-interested actions.

The United States, like most nations, regularly engages in marriages of convenience, whether with other nations, non-state actors, or even individuals who help promote U.S. policy objectives in exchange for some form of compensation. But the United States also has a long history of couching its alliances in terms of ideology and shared values. When it reverses course — when it then treats these alliances as a simple quid pro quo — the about-face can be confusing at best. At worst, it leaves more allies in positions like Mohammed: scared, confounded, and feeling hung out to dry by a partner that they once believed had their best interests at heart.

*All names have been changed to protect the subjects of this story.

Whitney Kassel is a foreign policy analyst based in New York City. Kassel spent four years with the secretary of defense, where she focused on special operations, counterterrorism, and Pakistan. She also served as a senior director focused on strategic analysis and risk management at The Arkin Group, a private intelligence firm. @whitneykassel

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