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Army veteran struggles to save interpreter stuck in Afghanistan

By HAMED ALEAZIZ | San Francisco Chronicle (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 21, 2016

In a tiny eastern Afghanistan town in November, rifle-toting Islamic State fighters pounded on the door of relatives of Qismat Amin, a 25-year-old former interpreter for the U.S. Army, demanding he come out.

Those inside insisted he'd left years ago and hadn't been back. But months later, the militants returned and confiscated the family's crops, saying they could be reclaimed only in exchange for Amin.

"There is no way in hell I can go there," Amin, now hiding out in another city in Afghanistan, said in a recent Skype interview. "They want to assassinate me. Those people are probably still trying to find me ... and they can."

Nine months after the visit from Islamic State fighters, Amin must continue to evade those angry about his nearly three-year stint working with U.S. soldiers. He hopes to flee to the United States -- and he has a powerful advocate in a wartime colleague, Capt. Matt Ball, a former Army Ranger now studying law at Stanford University.

Ball is determined to live up to the pledge he learned in his first week of duty: Leave no man behind.

It won't be easy. Amin is one of thousands of Afghan interpreters stuck in their home country after working with the U.S., held up by political and bureaucratic obstacles to obtaining a special immigrant visa that was implicitly promised them if their lives were at risk.

Amin's visa application has been in limbo for nearly three years as the U.S. State Department carries out eligibility and security checks. The State Department declined to provide information on Amin's case, citing the confidentiality of visa records.

As Amin and others wait, the number of visas available through the special program has dwindled, and inaction in Congress -- fueled by what some see as rising anti-Muslim sentiment -- has left the program's future in doubt. At this point, about 2,500 visas remain available to around 12,000 applicants like Amin, according to the State Department.

Unless Congress acts by the end of the year, the program will be discontinued and the available visas capped at the number remaining.

Ball is dedicated in his quest to help Amin get to America. "I feel like I'm responsible," said Ball, who has persuaded many of his fellow Stanford Law students to help him.

The bond between the soldier and the interpreter formed over a year together with the 4th Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division in the country's oft-violent Tora Bora region of Nangarhar province, the area of eastern Afghanistan to which Osama bin Laden fled in 2001.

Soldiers in that deployment died, Ball said. He wants to make sure Amin does not.

Ball is not alone in his efforts to help Afghans who aided the U.S. Ryan Crocker, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012, said of those awaiting visas: "I don't see them as refugees. I see them as fellow veterans. They fought right alongside us, so if we've ever owed a group of people anything -- it would be to help these people come to safety because of what they did for us."

In Afghanistan, Crocker explained, the U.S. ground forces relied on collaborating with local leaders to help push out the Taliban and other militants. Interpreters were a vital part of the operation.

"It's not a conventional war," he said. "You don't just wipe out a village -- you go into a village, you sit down with leaders and you see what the situation is. You can't do that without interpreters."

After being hired in 2010, Amin, then just 19, became a personal translator for Ball's boss -- a lieutenant colonel with the 101st Airborne. Ball said Amin was not only "exemplary and courageous" but also helped defuse potentially dangerous situations and regularly acted as a cultural ambassador.

"Qismat was everything you want in an interpreter -- he was loyal, brave and tireless," Ball said.

When Amin told his mother he'd taken the job, she cried.

That spring, the Taliban announced they had killed four interpreters -- boasting that they'd killed one on his wedding day. Just being alongside U.S. soldiers was dangerous enough: Amin was there, he said, when a four-vehicle convoy was attacked on a narrow street in eastern Afghanistan in 2010.

"I saw these three guys -- they were like ghosts -- they popped into the street with an AK-47 and RPG," he said. "Everyone started yelling: RPG! RPG! RPG! And we all went down." The rocket-propelled grenade missed the car, and the attackers were killed.

The next day, he was back on the same street, asking locals if they knew the men.

Ball and Amin spent nearly every day together from 2010 to 2011. Amin asked Ball about life in America and practiced his English with him. He talked about being a Justin Bieber fan and wondered why American families were so small. As they grew closer, Amin asked Ball if he'd help him to get to the U.S. someday.

Ball, a 30-year-old Colorado native, graduated from Wesleyan University. He turned down a lucrative job offer in the financial sector to join the Army. And in the process of his first tour, he connected with the young Afghan.

"There's a really strong bond that a lot of soldiers have with interpreters -- they're crucial members of the team. ... There were times when my life was in Qismat's hands and Qismat's life was in my hands," he said.

When Ball departed Afghanistan after his deployment ended in August 2011, Amin walked him to his helicopter. Ball said goodbye to his fellow soldiers, then told Amin: "Hey, I hope to see you one day."

Five years later, that possibility seems less likely. Amin applied for the special immigrant visa designated for those who interpreted for the U.S. or worked alongside American forces in other capacities in 2013. But the approval process is tedious and often plagued by delays, advocates say.

Almost everything for Amin's application has been checked off -- the U.S. Embassy in Kabul has confirmed the "serious threat" he faces and his "faithful and valuable service" to the U.S. He has received a recommendation from an Army major as well. But his application has been stuck for nearly three years in "administrative processing," or a security and eligibility check, a process that usually takes six months.

While the State Department did not comment on Amin's case, a spokesman acknowledged that the visa processing time "can be slow and remains an area of focus both here in Washington and at our embassy in Kabul," adding that the agency is looking for ways to improve the process.

The spokesman said the government was committed to "facilitating legitimate travel" and providing quick service, but added: "We must ensure that applicants do not pose a security risk to the United States and otherwise are eligible for a visa."

"The security checks are important," said Crocker, the former ambassador. But, he said, "I think any reasonable person would agree that you don't spend three years doing a security check. I think what we have here is a highly cumbersome, inefficient bureaucratic process to which insufficient resources are being devoted."

Stuck in Afghanistan, Amin lives in fear. He often stays home and almost never leaves his house after 5 p.m.

Whenever he saw people staring at him at the university where he studied, he thought the worst.

"I think they're probably following me and are going to kill me," he said. Images of brutal Islamic State killings shown on news broadcasts across the globe replay in his head. "My life is at risk. They can kill me at any time they want to."

With the help of fellow students at Stanford Law, Ball has contacted senators and representatives across the country.

Some politicians have responded and helped, while others never called back. In the Senate, some, such as Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., national security adviser to presidential candidate Donald Trump, have opposed adding more visas to the program because of the expense and the fear of a brain drain in Afghanistan.

"We just need to be careful about this," he said earlier this year. "Just because you've got applicants doesn't mean every one of them is deserving of acceptance." Sessions previously cited "a high likelihood of exploitation by al Qaeda terrorists" when he opposed adding visas in 2013.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is among those trying to unlock the visa logjam. He has warned that delays in making more visas available would put interpreters at risk. "They're going to die. They're going to be killed," he said on the Senate floor this year.

The State Department also supports adding visas to the program. "We recognize how important it is to support these people who have taken such enormous risks for us on our behalf," a spokesman said.

Military leaders have weighed in, saying that abandoning the visa program would not only put interpreters at risk, but also undermine U.S. credibility and bolster enemy propaganda.

Though it has become an ever fainter notion, Ball and Amin have talked about Amin attending Ball's wedding in September. "It'll be your first American wedding," he has told Amin hopefully.

If his friend does make it to the U.S., Ball said, he has a place to stay with Ball's parents in Colorado. "It's like a recipe for a sitcom," he laughed. "I'll have two middle-class parents in Denver with an Afghan Muslim in their basement."

For now, the veteran will keep doing all he can to make that happen. It's his duty, he said, a mission he has yet to complete.

"When I left, I could rationalize it -- we're not going to leave him behind, he's going to come with us eventually," he said. "I have to apologize for the fact that we're not upholding our side of the bargain."

haleaziz@sfchronicle.com

(c) 2016 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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