When the US goes to war, it rarely fights alone. In Afghanistan, the US military has for years leaned heavily on hiring people locally, often as interpreters. Yet, as coalition forces return home, the vast majority of Afghans who stay behind can face deadly threats.
Mohammad, an interpreter and adviser alongside US troops and officials in Afghanistan, knew this reality well. But he was upbeat last fall when a US visa seemed to be on the way.
“I am hopeful that I'll get the approval,” he said then, adding, “You never know. You never know what happens.”
Mohammad wanted a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) — available only for Afghans who have assisted US missions. It also applies to their families, including unmarried children younger than age 21.
Unfortunately, the wait took too long. In late January, Mohammad was shot point-blank near the border with Pakistan, reportedly by the Taliban.
“I was pretty shocked, even though [Mohammad] had been saying that his life had been under threat by the Taliban for many years."
“I was pretty shocked, even though he had been saying that his life had been under threat by the Taliban for many years,” said Stephen Verrecchia, with the US State Department. He lives in Washington, DC, now, but worked closely with Mohammad in Afghanistan.
For over a decade, Mohammad’s work as an interpreter and adviser had taken him everywhere.
“I've been with the Army, the Special Forces, the embassy,” said Mohammad, who had asked to use his middle name only for safety reasons.
The Taliban often sees those who work for foreign entities or armed forces as traitors. To visit his family’s home in eastern Afghanistan, Mohammad said that he had to go undercover and avoid Taliban checkpoints.
“You can’t travel alone in a ranger, even a convoy, an armored truck. ...They come under attack.”
“You can’t travel alone in a ranger, even a convoy, an armored truck,” he told The World in a 2020 interview from the police base where he worked to help train officers, under a Department of Defense contract. “They come under attack.”
Special Immigration Visas can be lifelines, but the process is often opaque, with unexplained denials, and it can go on for years. Applications can pingpong around several US government agencies, even though applications often detail immediate threats against interpreters’ lives.
During both the Barack Obama and Donald Trump presidencies, interpreters have sued to speed things up, including a class-action lawsuit brought by the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a nonprofit based in New York. In 2013, Congress mandated that SIV applicants should receive a decision within nine months of submitting an application. Most visa applicants wait far longer than that.
“We take these threats very seriously, and we are committed to providing efficient and secure SIV processing while maintaining national security as our highest priority."
The Biden administration has pledged to help more. The US State Department did not grant an interview to The World, but emailed a statement: “We take these threats very seriously, and we are committed to providing efficient and secure SIV processing while maintaining national security as our highest priority."
The statement also said that more than 70,000 Afghans have benefited from SIV programs.
Zia Ghafoori, a former Afghan interpreter, arrived in the United States in 2014 after a six-year wait for his visa. He now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and runs the Interpreting Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for Afghan interpreters and assists with resettling those who do receive visas.
In Afghanistan, Ghafoori was nicknamed “Booyah” by those in the Army unit and received a Purple Heart after surviving intense firefight with wounds.
“I'm trying to help those that are still in Afghanistan. ... They should not face the wait that I did. Many of these guys took a bullet for both countries — the United States and Afghanistan.”
“I'm trying to help those that are still in Afghanistan,” he said. “They should not face the wait that I did. Many of these guys took a bullet for both countries — the United States and Afghanistan.”
Today, about 17,000 Afghans are waiting for visas, according to IRAP.
Mohammad had cleared big hurdles and hoped to get to the US soon with his family.
“Everyone!” he said, including his wife, and four daughters and two sons. The oldest is 19.
Verrecchia, with the State Department, had last spoken with Mohammad over Christmas. In January, Verrecchia emailed friends, expressing hope to greet his former interpreter, along with his family, on US soil soon. “Perhaps 2021 will finally be the year, I'm keeping my fingers crossed,” he wrote.
“In a very almost professorial way, he made me understand Afghanistan culture,” Verrecchia said. “I think Afghanistan is far more than what, you know, you see in the paper, in terms of the tremendous loss of life and the casualties.”
Verrecchia believes that the State Department has a “moral obligation” to help former interpreters.
Julie Kornfield agrees. She is a senior staff attorney with IRAP and worked with Mohammad on his case.
“I feel sick to my stomach,” she said. “It’s just infuriating to know that he was very close to reaching a safer place in the world.”
Kornfield and others are now leading efforts to help Mohammad’s family receive US visas.
At least 300 Afghan interpreters have been killed since 2014. Their deaths do not make big headlines. Yet, news circulates among US military and officials who’ve worked closely with them.
Former Army Special Forces Major David Smyth, who toured multiple times in Iraq and Afghanistan, remembered leading his team along a narrow road in rural Afghanistan that opened to a big field. His interpreter pulled him aside and told him to stop. They appeared to be entering an old Soviet minefield, where hockey puck-sized devices could still explode.
“He was picking up on cues that we would have never picked up on,” said Smyth, who now lives in Pinehurst, North Carolina.
Smyth said that not enough people in the US realize the critical role interpreters play on the battlefield. That’s why these visas don’t get prioritized.
“So few people serve in the military, and of that — even fewer see combat. ... I don't think that you can really change the mind of the government, if the people in the United States don't really see the urgency the way that I see it."
“So few people serve in the military, and of that — even fewer see combat,” Smyth said.
That reality, he said, contributes to a lack of national understanding about the Afghans’ contributions or a need to accelerate visa processing.
“I don't think that you can really change the mind of the government, if the people in the United States don't really see the urgency the way that I see it,” he said.
The urgency is clearer than ever for one Afghan who works with the US military. He asked not to use his name for security reasons. He knew Mohammad well and is quite familiar with the threat from the Taliban: “They just know killing,” he said. “They just know AK-47s. They do not know humanity.”
Now, he said, his family is in danger.
“I am also receiving every day, me and my father and brothers are receiving calls from the Taliban that we will be killed,” he said.
He has not left his house in weeks, he said. He knows the threats are intensifying against people like him — especially as the US considers withdrawing troops — and the Taliban regains power.
He has also applied for a US visa — the same kind Mohammad wanted — in March 2018.
He is still waiting for an answer.