Whenever the US military deploys to a foreign, non-English-speaking nation one of the things that is needed is interpreters. For obvious reasons, you need to communicate with the local population and the better you communicate the easier your life will be. If you were stationed in the Republic of Korea, you know that KATUSAs (Korean Augmentees to the US Army) are a part of the Army structure and can, emphasize “can”, be a great asset, In a combat zone, having someone you can trust who can interpret language and customs for you and who can look around and see when things are wrong (wait, wait, why aren’t there any women and children on the street?) becomes a matter of life and death. During the Vietnam war, interpreters could tell where a detainee was from by his accent, something that no soldier who was an Army trained “linguist” could do. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, local nationals put their lives in jeopardy to work the US forces and, in most cases, they were motivated by idealism not money.
Now that we have skedaddled from Iraq and are bolting from Afghanistan we are leaving behind a cadre of men, and some women, who rendered significant services to the US military and whose lives are in dangerous. Bill McMorris, at the Washington Free Beacon, has chronicled the plight of these people.
[Former Interpreter Naqeeb] Jaan, 28, began his application in January 2014 and was approved 20 months later. He left his hometown of Kunduz to finish up some routine paperwork at the Kabul Embassy on the evening of September 27.
“I called home to my dad and asked how was everything going. Immediately my dad said, ‘Thank God you are not here because the entire city is taken by Taliban, and they are going door to door looking for people who worked for the government and for interpreters,’” Jaan says. “My name is in the Taliban’s kill list and they were looking for me.”
Within hours of taking the city, insurgents killed 30 people accused of collaborating with coalition forces. Methods of execution ranged from bullets to pick-up truck. The city’s jail cells were emptied, the inmates armed to fight the government. Former National Directorate of Security Amrullah Saleh told reporters terrorists executed three nurses in a maternity hospital. Amnesty International demanded that the Afghan military “restore order.”
“The multiple credible reports of killings, rapes and other horrors meted out against the city’s residents must prompt the Afghan authorities to do more now to protect civilians, in particular in areas where more fighting appears imminent,” Horia Mosadiq, the group’s Afghan expert, said in a release.
The loss of one of Afghanistan’s largest cities did not warrant much attention in the United States until an errant American airstrike killed 40 people at a Doctors Without Borders hospital. The Afghan military retook Kunduz within three days. Jaan knew that the victory did little to diminish the Taliban’s strength in the region. He ran into a childhood friend who told him that one of their fellow interpreters was among the dead. He knew he could not go back home. The bag he packed for his three-day trip now held his only possessions.
Most interpreters come to the United States with a loan from the International Organization for Migration, but that process can take weeks. “I was sure that if I waited on IOM, that the Taliban would find me and kill me before I could leave,” he says. He emptied his bank account and cobbled together money from friends and family for the $1,380 for a ticket to Dulles.
Then he sent a Facebook message to an American women he’d never met.
Jaan was enrolled in the Special Immigrant Visa program, which, in an ideal world should have made his move to the US easier. In reality, it nearly cost him his life.
Jaan’s story is a familiar one. He is fluent in seven languages and learned English taking private courses during his adolescence. At 22 he got a job with American contractor DynCorp International and spent four years as an interpreter for the American and Dutch militaries, working with everyone from generals to drill sergeants training the fledgling Afghan National Army. He started off at a regional police base, but volunteered for an assignment in Helmand, among Afghanistan’s most dangerous provinces. That’s where he met Army Sergeant First Class John Gabbard, who trained Afghan troops in 2010 and 2011.
“There was no fair comparison for the work that he did and everyone else’s. He was loyal to a fault. We had a couple situations where I had to tell Naqeeb to get his ass back in the truck because he was putting himself at risk,” Gabbard, now a senior trooper with the Kentucky State Police, says. “He loved everything about the U.S. and loved us as brothers.”
Coming to the United States was never part of the plan. Jaan believed the Americans when they promised a free Afghanistan and signed on to do his part. “I wanted to work in combat areas. Interpreters were very important people to the fight because not many people spoke English,” he says.
The situation changed when President Obama began withdrawing troops in October 2012. Jaan’s contract expired two months later. Fewer American troops meant fewer interpreters. He lost his job and his spot on a base that served as a safe haven from Taliban.
Jaan returned to Kunduz as Taliban forces began to overtake neighboring villages, and began his visa application after receiving multiple death threats. He spent the next two years in hiding, spending most days in a backroom with basic supplies provided by a trusted group of friends and family. The only amenity was a top-of-the line Internet connection so he could watch daytime television on his computer.
Keep in mind that it took twenty months for the US Embassy to process his visa application. Compare and contrast with the length of time it took the female San Bernardino shooter to get her visa.
His story is only one of many. Routinely, their visas are approved after their passports have expired. Because these people were typically not wealthy, many of them spent time on the run and are totally broke by the time they receive their visa and can’t afford plane fare to the United States.
A non-profit, No One Left Behind, has been formed by former Marine Matthew Zeller and his interpreter, Janis Shinwari, to help resettle interpreters but that is only part of the battle. Congress and Department of Defense seem supremely uninterested in the fate of these men and women, who served America loyally and at the risk of their own lives, and much more interested in responding the media feeding frenzy about “Syrian refugees” about whom we know nothing.
The United States issued visas to more than 2,600 interpreters through September. The defense spending bill signed in November granted an additional 3,000 for the next fiscal year. The State Department estimates that 11,500 Afghan applicants were “at some step in the SIV application process” as of August 28. They compete for about 4,400 remaining visas before the embassy stops accepting applications on Dec. 31, 2016.
Those left behind have one hope. A permanent SIV program created by Congress grants 50 visas to interpreters from Iraq and Afghanistan each year—a system that could resettle each of the remaining applicants by 2158 A.D.
Those interpreters who avoid being killed and who do not get US visas will probably join the stream of migrants passing through Turkey on their way to refugee status in Europe. But we owe these people a debt that we should pay, if not for the sake of decency, out of enlightened self interest.
Vietnam comes up often in conversation with No One Left Behind and its supporters. Zeller considers the abandonment of interpreters a repeat of the fall of Saigon. More than 3 million people fled the country, visible on boats bound for the Indian Ocean or hanging from helicopter skids. The desperation was out in the open; the real tragedy—the genocide and mass executions in Cambodia and Vietnam—was not fully understood for years.
“The word had gotten out in the indigenous community about how we treat interpreters. Why would anyone want to risk their life fighting with us if we just leave them at the mercy of the enemy when we extricate?” Saddler says.
[Former Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld linked his donation to America’s ability to recruit local allies in future conflicts. (Ed note: Rumsfeld has made large donations to this No One Left Behind)
“America is understandably judged by how we protect and support our allies, which impacts our country’s ability to earn support in the future. Ensuring the safety of local interpreters is a serious U.S. national security concern,” Rumsfeld says.
The Obama administration has not only burned down our alliances and destroyed our relationships with other nations he seems to have set about do destroy the ability of US forces to ever operate in a non-English-speaking country. Abandoning Afghan and Iraqi interpreters to their fates is going to have a direct and detrimental impact the next time we send troops into combat.