Get visas for Afghan interpreters who helped U.S. troops

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

The following editorial appears on Bloomberg View:

As the United States plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2014, no man or woman should be left behind. This includes the Afghan interpreters who have guided Western forces through hostile terrain for the last 12 years and now feel their lives are in jeopardy.

Unfortunately, the State Department is rejecting or sitting on a growing number of their visa applications. Officials who arbitrarily decide that these allies face no undue risk should take a hard look beyond the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The visa process needs to be streamlined.

Interpreters are essential guides for U.S. commanders, especially in Afghanistan, a foot soldier's war in a deviously opaque and complex tribal society. It is virtually impossible for them to remain anonymous: Even if they wear disguises and adopt phony American names, they are often working in their home villages or regions, where close familial and tribal ties betray anonymity.

Reprisals are inevitable: By 2010, more than 360 Iraqi and Afghan interpreters had already died while working as translators for U.S. and allied forces, according to an 18-month investigation by ProPublica and the Los Angeles Times. This death toll exceeded the military losses in either war of any nation other than the United States.

As the U.S. bases where Afghan interpreters now live are shuttered, a rash of visa applications is expected. The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, a legal advocacy group that assists Iraqi and Afghan refugees, recently created a page on Facebook offering legal representation to Afghan interpreters seeking visas; in one week, it received more than 100 desperate replies.

This problem should not exist: Since passing the Afghan Allies Protection Act in 2009, Congress has allocated more than 8,700 special immigrant visas and outlined expedited procedures for granting them in cases where lives are threatened. Yet as of November, the government had approved fewer than 1,700 of them, leaving a backlog of some 5,000. (The State Department refuses to verify exact numbers, and the Defense Department can't even say how many interpreters it has used because almost all were hired by civilian contractors who have not maintained reliable databases.)

What is causing the bottleneck? A special review committee at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul has been denying visa applications on the dubious grounds that the applicants face no serious threat. And even those applications that are forwarded to the U.S. often languish for months or years as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services conducts due diligence, and then the Department of Homeland Security runs multiagency security checks.

Such caution is understandable: Officials are surely worried that a visa will turn up in the hands of a terrorist. Yet that calculated risk is taken with each of the tens of thousands of political refugees granted entry to the U.S. each year, and it can be mitigated with reasonable background checks and vetting. Some State Department officials, including Karl Eikenberry, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, have argued that allowing too many English-speaking interpreters to leave Afghanistan would "drain this country of our very best civilian and military partners: our Afghan employees." That argument reeks of immoral expediency.

The U.S. government has been down this path before. When U.S. troops were preparing to withdraw from Iraq in 2010, only a fraction of the 20,000 visas allocated under the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act had been approved. Breaking that logjam required intense pressure from Congress and ultimately leadership from the White House and the National Security Council, which spurred efforts to streamline the process. Reforms included increasing temporary staff at the Baghdad embassy, strict deadlines for agencies to process applications, and sending caseworkers to help foreign nationals navigate a byzantine bureaucracy.

Secretary of State John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, should realize the debt we owe to foreigners who have helped us in wartime. Failure to expedite the visa process Congress authorized would break faith not only with our Afghan allies, but also with the U.S. soldiers and Marines whose lives they helped protect.