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Afghans Who Helped U.S. Forces Still Hope For Visas


In Afghanistan, thousands of people have been hired to work for U.S. forces since the war began. That's despite repeated threats from the Taliban to murder anyone who works for the Americans. Three years ago, Congress established a visa program for Afghan interpreters and others who might be at risk for their work with the U.S. But so far, few of those visas have been granted, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Kabul.


QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Speaking over the rattle of an armored truck engine at a remote base in eastern Afghanistan, an Afghan interpreter is trying to bridge the gap between America and his native country.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible) go over there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, yeah, I'm going to take them down to the HOZ where the helicopters picked up. (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What's that?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The (unintelligible).


LAWRENCE: The American commander wants the Afghan soldiers down at the landing zone at 3 a.m. so they can be ready to fly out at dawn.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's too early.

LAWRENCE: The Afghan commander thinks that's way too early. These sort of standoffs are a daily part of the job for the interpreter. They don't worry him. What worries him is what happens when the Americans leave.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: When the U.S. Army leaves, it's not possible that we leave here, maybe they'll kill us because we worked for couple of years with U.S. Army. Lots of people know that we're working here.

LAWRENCE: His concern is shared by many others who've worked with the U.S. military and State Department. This interpreter says he's been promised a visa to the United States. He's collected letters of recommendation from the officers he's worked with, but so far, no luck, and he's not alone.

SHAFIK NASAI: I've been trying to get my visa since October '09.

LAWRENCE: Another interpreter, 35-year-old Shafik Nasai(ph), has worked for six years for U.S. forces. He signed up because it was a good job and he thought he would help bring peace and stability to his country.

NASAI: Because as an Afghan, at first I thought there's peace in Afghanistan, but later on that I've seen the situation got worse in Afghanistan and day by day, I feel real danger about my family and about my kid.

LAWRENCE: In 2009, the U.S. Congress recognized the growing danger and authorized a visa program for Afghans under threat because they've assisted American forces. The Taliban regularly makes threats to behead anyone who works with the U.S. Four thousand four hundred seventy-two Afghan have applied for the visa. Somehow, only seven visas have been granted so far. Elena Teplets(ph), of the U.S. embassy in Kabul, says it's taken that long to get the procedures in place.

ELENA TEPLETS: We worked hard to establish procedures that would ensure that we didn't introduce fraud into the process, that we respected our national security concerns and could get these applications moving as quickly as possible.

LAWRENCE: Teplets says the current ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, has made the program a priority. What she does not say is that a leaked cable suggests that the previous ambassador intentionally slowed down the process, fearing the program would drain the most qualified Afghans out of the country. State Department officials have a policy of not commenting on leaked cables, but Teplets says the visa process is speeding up, hopefully to dozens per week. For Nasai, that's no comfort. He says he's afraid every time he walks off the Army base.

NASAI: There's a saying but, you know, talk talk, no action. So - if I put it that way.

LAWRENCE: For some, the wait has been too long. Ahmed Zubai(ph) worked as a translator for the U.S. Army in eastern Afghanistan for three years, only months after he started men in home village sent a message through his little brother.

AHMED ZUBAI: Stop working with the U.S. military and stop working with the infidels. We're going to catch you. We're going to cut it off your head. You know, we're going to cut off your head.

LAWRENCE: Zubai spoke by phone from Austria. In 2010, he paid a smuggler all of his savings to get him to Europe. He applied for asylum, and he's been working at McDonald's. His U.S. Army friends said he deserved a visa to America, but in the end, he says it was the Austrians, not the Americans who helped him. Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.