leave no interpreter behind
Thursday , November 14, 2013 - 3:19 PM
In fighting a war for more than a decade in Afghanistan, U.S. troops have relied heavily on interpreters in navigating danger zones and speaking clearly to a population caught up in the violence. These interpreters are not just robots, translating Pashto or Dari into English. They have served as the eyes and ears of U.S. soldiers, effectively taking America’s side in the war, facing similar risks of death and dismemberment. They have ridden in the same convoys and walked in the same alleys.
We find it incomprehensible that the State Department is dragging its feet in providing these interpreters with U.S. visas. These courageous Afghans face retribution from the Taliban. They fear that, after the withdrawal of U.S. forces next year, they will be sought out and killed. According to a dispatch from Kabul by The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff, a growing number of these interpreters are being denied visas because the State Department says there is no serious threat against their lives.
Such a judgment is being made by a committee at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The law requires the interpreters to demonstrate that they have experienced, or are experiencing, an ongoing threat as a consequence of employment by or on behalf of the U.S. government, but there is flexibility. The paperwork for those who pass muster by the committee is then sent to Washington.
This process is flawed. It puts the burden of proof on the applicants and fails to take into consideration the threats they will face in the future, after the pullout. In refugee cases, it has often been sufficient for applicants to describe a threat they believe they face. Can’t a similar standard work for the loyal Afghan interpreters? There are specific country conditions for each war zone; in this one, the likelihood of murder and revenge at the hands of the Taliban is a real danger.
Since the program’s inception four years ago, 1,648 interpreters have received Afghan special immigrant visas out of the 8,750 allocated by Congress. Many interpreters are waiting in the pipeline, and plenty of visas are waiting to be granted. Clearly something has gone wrong here. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, a decorated war veteran, ought to step in and order the situation fixed immediately for Afghan interpreters who can demonstrate faithful service to the United States.
In the longer term, Congress needs to pay attention to fixing the visa programs for both Afghan and Iraqi interpreters. The long delays and backlogs of recent years are inexcusable. Both programs are set to expire within the next year and need to be extended. When U.S. forces needed help, these interpreters stepped forward. The United States ought to show the same alacrity in rescuing them from the dangers created by their service.