During our nearly 20-year presence in Afghanistan, the U.S. military and countless government personnel have been aided by Afghan interpreters. These brave men and women bridged the gap between Americans and Afghans, often patrolling, and sometimes even fighting, alongside our forces.
Because of their selfless service to American personnel, the Taliban consider interpreters arch traitors. According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, “at least thousands” of Afghan interpreters have been killed in retaliation by the Taliban and other criminal elements.
The United States created the Special Immigrant Visa program in 2006 to grant threatened interpreters from Iraq and Afghanistan refugee status and ultimately citizenship. The SIV program has failed to deliver the safety it promised, however, as evidenced by the host of critical gaps identified in recent reports from Brown University, the Truman Center, and the Department of State’s Office of the Inspector General.
Currently, a backlog of 18,800 applications of Afghan translators awaits processing. Rather than the nine-month processing period promised, applications have taken an average of 658 days to process, putting translators and their families at unnecessary, continued risk. The Washington Post estimates that around 1,000 Iraqi and Afghan interpreters have been killed while awaiting their visas.
Numerous interpreters whose lives are imperiled have been unable to apply for — or were rejected from — the SIV program. Many are unable to locate their employers to supply the necessary proof of employment. Others have been denied because the application makes untenable demands on Afghans who live under wartime constraints.
As we prepare for a September withdrawal, the Taliban is increasing attacks against Afghan forces. Noting that our allies face rising threats to their lives, and the lives of their family members, on May 19, a bipartisan group of 20 senators requested more immediate action, including asking Biden to “consider options to evacuate [SIV applicants] to a safer location” while their applications are processed.
A Crucial Ally
When Echo Company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment entered Sangin in January 2011, the once deadly area of operations was empty of people, and devoid of the lush fields of crops for which the district in Helmand province is infamous. Although Lance Corporal Caleb Taylor’s squad rarely saw the Taliban, they discovered the enemy’s deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs) each time they patrolled.
Initially, Taylor’s platoon was assigned just one interpreter, who refused to go on patrol to Taylor’s outpost, much less to patrol through minefields with Taylor’s squad. Without that assistance, the squad’s 14 Marines and one corpsman could hardly communicate with the 10 members of the Afghan National Army who shared their outpost and operated beside them.
In April, the squad was assigned its own interpreter, “NB,” whose name is being withheld out of concerns for his safety. After NB’s arrival, the Marines “could actually have full conversations,” Taylor says. Eventually, NB and the ANA soldiers became “like brothers to [Taylor], just as much as the Marines [he] worked with.”
NB’s arrival coincided with Sangin’s “lunar landscape” bursting into abundant life. With the farming season underway, locals returned. Through NB, Taylor’s squad could engage with the populace, who were enraged when the Taliban’s deadly IEDs killed or horrifically maimed local children, and blew apart livestock. NB helped the squad develop a network of informants, who gave the Marines tips about where IEDs were buried, or where emplacers (those who plant — or seek to plant — IEDs) might be living.
As they learned to trust the Marines, locals came to the squad’s outpost with urgent medical problems. One night, NB translated for a local family whose newborn had fallen into a canal. The corpsman cleared its airway, and the ANA soldiers and NB cared for the baby throughout the night until the family returned the following day.
NB’s arrival “turned [the situation] around and made it a safer area of operations for everyone,” Taylor says. The intelligence he brought was “crucial [and] imperative for [the Marines] to effectively fight a counterinsurgency battle and keep [themselves] alive.”
At some point after his subsequent service in Kandahar and Herat provinces, NB began to receive threatening night letters from the Taliban. When he applied to the SIV program in around 2015, however, his application was denied. While NB had performed the requisite number of years of service, he was terminated early from his first two contracts. In Helmand, NB told Taylor he had “gone on leave too long.” In Kandahar, he was terminated because “the unit [he served with] had too many interpreters.”
James Miervaldis of the nonprofit group No One Left Behind, says the current SIV rules are unforgiving. “Even if an applicant has two years of ‘faithful and valuable service’ to the U.S. government,” Miervaldis explains, “if he or she is terminated at any point … their entire time of service is negated.”
‘Something Meaningful, and Something Lasting’
After working with Taylor and No One Left Behind on an appeal in 2020, NB recently submitted a new SIV application. Still, the ANA second lieutenant has little time to await the SIV’s processing. In fact, he told Taylor that, in retaliation for NB’s associations with U.S. forces, his brother and sister-in-law were kidnapped, and his brother-in-law was murdered.
The Taliban maintain a hold outside the city where NB lives. They no longer allow his family to travel to their rural farmland to work their land and tend their crops. NB tells Taylor that he now carries a weapon to protect his wife and newborn baby, whom he does not allow to leave the house.
With U.S. withdrawal imminent, Taylor feels renewed urgency to ensure NB and his family get to the United States. Helping NB is his way of “[doing] something meaningful, and something lasting,” and helping a man who did “everything [he] could to help [the Marines].”
Maj. Thomas Schueman is among other veterans and service members making sincere appeals for their former interpreters. Schueman’s interpreter “Zack,” is unable to apply to the SIV program because his former contracting agency cannot be reached to provide proof of employment.
Zack has previously been identified by the Taliban for his work with the Marines. He says the local Taliban “are threatening [him] all the time.” Schueman considers assisting Zack a way of honoring his “lifelong contract” of “service to [his] troops.”
Miervaldis reports that No One Left Behind has recently received thousands of e-mails and Facebook messages regarding interpreters concerned about their SIV status. As the Taliban step up violent attacks on government forces, the targeting of interpreters will likely increase.
Rather than allowing our allies to stand by in peril as we address decades of failures in our SIV program, we must grant our interpreters asylum with haste. Neglecting to protect those who assisted us would be a moral failure, as well as a stinging blow to those who fought alongside our Afghan allies. It could also have resounding national security implications should we look to forge local alliances in future conflicts.