US can’t reciprocate translators’ help with just words
Ever since President Joe Biden announced that U.S. troops would be leaving Afghanistan by Sept. 11, there has been a troubling trend on my social media platforms. Afghans with whom I served during my deployment have been reaching out more frequently. At first, it is the familiar conversations that we have shared in the three years since I left: how our families are, current events, who has been killed in action. Lately, the messages have been direct and urgent. They are calls for help.
As U.S. and coalition troops leave Afghanistan, thousands of translators will be without not only their source of livelihood, but their protectors. They are marked men, as the Taliban retake sections of the country and have begun assassinating them.
In 2009, Congress passed the Afghan Allies Protection Act making Afghan translators eligible for Special Immigrant Visas (SIV). There are currently some 18,000 deserving Afghans who have applied under the SIV program and are awaiting a decision. But the program needs to be reformed, and time is running out.
I have participated in the SIV process. As I was leaving Afghanistan in 2018, I wrote a letter of recommendation for one of my interpreters, Hazrat, to the chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. In addition to my letter, he had to provide a human resources letter from his company that stated that he had worked there for at least two years, and that he was under my charge during employment.
There are many problems with the current process.
I had two interpreters but could only recommend Hazrat because the other switched employers during my tour, resetting his two-year employment clock. My other translator, Noorullah, had to apply under a letter of recommendation from another U.S. Army officer.
As for the human resources letter, it can be a year or more until the company that employs an interpreter is contacted by someone from the embassy. As is the case with many contractors, the company could be closed or reorganized, which leads to a denial.
The two-year requirement needs to be eliminated. Due to the current and previous coalition withdrawals, many interpreters were released of their employment before they could complete 24 months of service. Regardless, how long you served coalition troops does not make you any less of a target.
Finally, the process takes too long. Under the Afghan Allies Protection Act the U.S. government has nine months to process a SIV application. It took 36 in the case of Hazrat, and that was just for his approval. He still is not in the U.S., and it is unlikely that he will be before the September withdrawal date. After which, he and his family could be killed.
What is needed is an immediate evacuation of Afghan interpreters to a third country. There, they can safely conduct the SIV application process. In 1996 the U.S. did just that for Iraqi Kurds in what was known as Operation Pacific Haven. In danger of reprisal from Saddam Hussein due to their work with U.S. aid groups, Kurds were airlifted to Guam. There they were housed and processed through immigration before eventually settling in the United States and other countries.
Verifying those who served as interpreters for U.S. troops is a relatively straightforward process. They have already gone through extensive background checks and undergo counterintelligence screening every six months. Unlike the thousands of refugees who seek to enter our country each year, we have records for those who have supported our forces in Afghanistan.
It should be noted that the United States does not and should not have to undertake this evacuation alone. The NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan is a coalition of 29 countries, all of which have had local national interpreter support.
We have a moral obligation to protect those who put their lives on the line to support our troops in America’s longest war. If we do not, who would ever help our forces in a future conflict? We must not allow the date of Sept. 11 to have yet another tragic meaning.
Wesley Satterwhite is a master’s student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. A captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, he served as a mentor to Afghan National Army commandos from 2017-2018.