Dispatch

‘Now I Can’t Go Home’

Afghan interpreters who worked with the U.S. military clamor for U.S. visas to escape Taliban retribution.

By , an Australian journalist, author, and analyst.
Interpreters demonstrate for U.S. visas.
Local interpreters take part in a demonstration demanding the United States issue them visas to relocate them and their families in front of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on June 25. Massoud Hossaini for Foreign Policy

Leaving Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan—Mirwais Shinwari had been working for the U.S. Army as an interpreter for four years, during some of the war’s fiercest fighting in southern Afghanistan, when he was arrested by U.S. soldiers in mid-2012 and told he was suspected of links to the Taliban. After his release months later, with no charges, the Taliban accused him of spying for the United States.

Ever since, he has been caught in limbo, he said—unable to return to his home in eastern Nangarhar province because of insurgent death threats and blacklisted by the U.S. government, which just announced that thousands of former interpreters like him will be evacuated to a third country to complete their visa applications.

KABUL, Afghanistan—Mirwais Shinwari had been working for the U.S. Army as an interpreter for four years, during some of the war’s fiercest fighting in southern Afghanistan, when he was arrested by U.S. soldiers in mid-2012 and told he was suspected of links to the Taliban. After his release months later, with no charges, the Taliban accused him of spying for the United States.

Ever since, he has been caught in limbo, he said—unable to return to his home in eastern Nangarhar province because of insurgent death threats and blacklisted by the U.S. government, which just announced that thousands of former interpreters like him will be evacuated to a third country to complete their visa applications.

“The Americans thought I was working as a spy for the Taliban, and the Taliban thought I was working as a spy for the Americans,” Shinwari, 34, said on Friday at a demonstration near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Around 50 former military interpreters said they, too, deserve to be issued Special Immigrant Visas, known as SIVs, so they can relocate to the United States.

Their cause has taken on new urgency in recent weeks as Taliban militiamen seized dozens of districts in the country’s north in a campaign that highlighted Afghanistan’s security forces’ lack of strategy and leadership. It comes as U.S. and NATO troops that have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years pack up to leave, possibly as soon as July 4.

The speed with which the Taliban have overrun large parts of the north, notably Balkh, Takhar, Faryab, and Kunduz provinces, has entrenched a widespread fear that the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani may not survive without the support of international forces. Although his corrupt and inept government is unpopular across the country, few welcome the prospect of a Taliban return to power.

The issue of visas for Afghans who worked with the U.S. military has become a test to how U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration will treat the thousands of people who have lived with Taliban threats after working for the Americans and now fear the departure of U.S. and NATO forces will leave them exposed to violent retribution.

Following months of pressure from lawmakers, the Biden administration briefed Congress this week on plans to evacuate thousands of Afghan interpreters and their family members from Afghanistan to third countries while they wait for their visa applications to be processed. More than 18,000 Afghans who worked as interpreters to support the U.S. military are awaiting Special Immigrant Visas to get into the United States, along with some 53,000 additional family members of the interpreters, according to several congressional aides briefed on the matter.

Interpreters march in a demonstration in Kabul on June 25.

Interpreters march in a demonstration in Kabul on June 25. Massoud Hossaini for Foreign Policy

The Biden administration has not yet publicly outlined the evacuation plan’s details, including what countries they plan to move interpreters and their family members to, how many Afghans will be evacuated, and what will happen to people who are evacuated but somehow do not get visas approved later on.

“They’re going to come,” Biden told reporters at the White House on Thursday. “We’ve already begun the process. Those who helped us are not going to be left behind.”

Biden met with Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, another former Afghan leader, at the White House on Friday to discuss the stalled peace process, the Taliban offensive, and growing threats to the Ghani government. Afghan security officials said Ghani is likely to hear from his hosts that the time has come to make peace with the Taliban and invite the insurgents into the government.

A source on the delegation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Afghans expect to be offered logistical support, including for the Afghan Air Force, which has proved essential for close air cover and to re-supply ground forces. In return, the source said, the U.S. administration will want to see greater political unity at the top of the Afghan government.

Meanwhile, as Washington worries about the fate of the Ghani government, the fate of the people who helped U.S. forces looms large in the Afghanistan endgame. The former interpreters who gathered in Kabul on Friday said they had been disqualified from applying for SIVs despite working alongside U.S. Marines and soldiers—sometimes, like Shinwari, for years on end in some of the most dangerous terrain at the height of the war. The protest was organized by the Afghans Left Behind Association, which represents some 2,000 former interpreters and other workers calling on the U.S. government to relocate them to the United States.

The organization said hundreds of former U.S. employees in Afghanistan have been killed, and others face threats from the Taliban, which has, in the past, said they are regarded as traitors. SIV applications can take years to crawl through the bureaucracy, and many are rejected for reasons that include a lack of up-to-date recommendation letters or because the applicant did not work a requisite two years.

Shinwari said after his release from detention at Bagram Airfield in December 2012, he was dismissed from his job as an interpreter and “black listed” from eligibility for the SIV he applied for in 2010.

“I went on leave to get married and was away from my job for two months. When I returned in May 2012, I was told that I was suspected of having ties to the terrorists and was held without being able to communicate with my family,” Shinwari said, whose nickname among U.S. Army soldiers was “Vodka.” He displayed a folder that appeared to contain recommendation letters, awards, and commendations from officers he worked with.

He said he was interrogated a few times a week while in detention about possible Taliban links. After seven months, he was told there was no evidence against him, and he was released—and promptly sacked. Since then, he said, “my family has been threatened by the Taliban many times. My father’s house was attacked when I visited in 2016, so now I can’t go home.”

Although it’s still unclear just how the Biden administration’s plan to evacuate interpreters and their families will play out—or how many will eventually secure visas—Shinwari called for a final act of justice from the other country he served.

“We worked with the Americans, we faced the same dangers and threats as those people who have [gotten] the visas, so we should be treated the same,” he said.

Robbie Gramer in Washington contributed to this report.

Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist, author, and analyst. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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