Afghans who helped US face death threats as they await scarce special visas

A U.S. Army soldier and interpreter gather information from locals about land owners in Sabikhel, Afghanistan in June 2010.
A U.S. Army soldier and interpreter gather information from locals about land owners in Sabikhel, Afghanistan in June 2010.
Photo by Sgt. Corey Idleburg, US Department of Defense

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He remembers the day the threats began.

A man stopped him on his walk home from work in his Kabul neighborhood. The stranger seemed to know a lot about him: his name, where his family lived and, most importantly, that he was working with a U.S. development agency. The stranger spoke politely, but had a simple message: stop working with the Americans or be killed.

"I was really, really scared," said the 30-year-old Afghan, who told his story via Skype from Kabul. "I was scared to death. My lips were shaking."

He's applied for a special visa program to bring his family to safety in the U.S. But the line is long and the timeline uncertain. There are thousands more Afghans who have applied for the visas than there are available visas, and the average wait to be processed is nearly 16 months.

The Afghan man asked that his name not be published due to the threats against him and his family. KPCC and American Homefront corroborated parts of his story with his attorney, an advocacy group familiar with his case and a former Afghan colleague now living in the U.S.

As a teen, he and his parents had fled Afghanistan, driven out by the Taliban. They watched from across the border in Pakistan after the U.S. invasion. Fighting was still ongoing, but there were signs of hope: more security, a new government, opportunity.

So they made the risky decision to return in 2008 and he joined the U.S.-backed efforts to stabilize the country.

His language and tech skills were in demand. He worked for a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development promoting energy, sanitation and infrastructure. He also worked at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul.

He felt that he was part of giving his country a better future, but soon his work drew death threats from local militants who targeted him and his family.

"The extremists are all over here, you know. Even in our neighborhoods," he said. "They don't like us to work with foreigners. They don't like us, they don't want us. And they do everything to stop us."

The threats continued. He fled to a different part of the city and went into hiding. But he soon returned to his job. He had to support not just his parents, but his wife and young son, now 16 months old.

Today, they're all in hiding. And the constant threat has changed every aspect of their lives.

"We are living in fear. We have to be very careful," he said. "The extremists are all over and if they find us, then who knows what will happen?"

"It absolutely means life or death"

Military commanders rely on Afghans for their language skills and cultural knowledge. Development projects draw on their deep ties to local networks. Afghans fill numerous roles, such as interpreters and technicians.

"In a place like Afghanistan, the mission doesn't really get done without them," said Mac McEachin, National Security Policy Associate with the International Refugee Assistance Project.

But often their work with the U.S. draws attention and makes them vulnerable to attacks, especially when American troops return home or aid agencies pull out.

"It absolutely means life or death," said McEachin, whose group helps Afghans whose work makes them targets to militants. "These are small communities, everybody knows everyone. So it's never a surprise, it's never a question of who is working with the Americans. It's only a question of how well protected are they going to be."

U.S. service members and interpreters with the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team visit the construction site of a girl's school in Froj village in the Anaba district of Afghanistan's Panjshir province in Jan. 2010.
U.S. service members and interpreters with the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team visit the construction site of a girl's school in Froj village in the Anaba district of Afghanistan's Panjshir province in Jan. 2010.
Sgt. Teddy Wade / U.S. Department of Defense

The U.S. created a special visa program for Afghans in 2009 that allows some of them to come to the U.S. It's called the Special Immigrant Visa program, or SIV. The law outlines strict limits on who qualifies and sets up a vetting process, which includes background checks by the State Department, FBI and other agencies.

But there are far too few visas available to meet demand. The State Department had to halt the program in March because it ran out of slots. It restarted in June, thanks to federal funding that opened up 2,500 more visas. But the State Department says more than 13,000 applicants are in the SIV pipeline. The average processing time for an SIV application is 480 days , according to the State Department.

Some people have been waiting for years.

"No matter how you hide, you don't know how much info they have about you, you don't feel safe," said Basheer, 29, an Afghan and a former tech worker at the American University in Afghanistan, who managed to secure one of the visas in 2015 and come to the U.S. He now works in San Francisco with a tech firm.

Basheer, who requested to use a single name for safety, was one of 3,626 Afghans who came to the U.S. that year in the SIV program, according to State Department data. When spouses and children are included, the number rises to 12,086 visas from July 2015 to June 2016, more than any year in the program's history, according to the State Department.

Since December 2014, more than 11,000 principal applicants - and some 40,000 Afghans in total since the program began - have been allowed to the U.S. in the program.

But some say more still needs to be done.

"If you think of the need as this giant reservoir of water, the SIV is like a soda straw policy," said Steve Miska, a retired Army Colonel who served on the National Security Council in the Obama Administration. He also worked alongside Iraqi interpreters while deployed in Iraq. "There's no way that the SIV policy is going to address the entire need."

Miska would like to see the U.S. develop a more comprehensive policy to protect local allies and anticipate the need as a central aspect of U.S. strategy. That could prove vital, he said, to recruiting partners in places like Syria in the future.

"These interpreters were people who we trusted with our lives, they were going on patrol with us every day into harm's way and putting their lives at risk in addition to many times, their families," said Miska.

It's an issue that other veterans have taken up, citing the military pledge of leaving no one behind. Groups like Veterans for American Ideals and No One Left Behind advocate for a swifter response for Afghan workers currently at risk and a more complete plan that includes relocation and support.

Other veterans describe their relationship working with Afghans as helping to shape a clearer and more complex picture of the war - a prerequisite to building on success.

"It gives you an opportunity to see these private glimpses into people's lives," said Colin Campbell, 33, a Marine veteran who served alongside Afghans while deployed from 2013 to 2014.

Frank discussions and insights from his Afghan colleagues, he said, helped his work as an intelligence analyst.

"I stopped seeing the conflict simplistically," he said. Upon returning to the U.S. from Afghanistan, Campbell started volunteering with local San Diego groups to help Afghan immigrants relocate and adjust to a new life in the area. "I really owed a lot to the hard work, dedication and patriotism of these Afghans."

A moral, and strategic, reason

Several recent efforts have attempted to provide more visas for Afghans.

"This is one of the few areas I think we can point to in our country right now where you've got a tremendous level of bipartisan support," said  Miska, the retired Army Colonel.

Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois introduced a bill, H.R. 1544 , in March that would add 2,500 more visa slots to the SIV program. So far the 29 sponsors of the bill are split evenly among Democrats and Republicans. In June, the Senate Armed Services Committee advanced a defense spending bill that would authorize 4,000 more visa slots next year.

Kinzinger, an Air Force veteran and member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said the efforts are part of a long-term strategy and righting the mistakes of the past.

"We did it in Vietnam, and the concern is we do it here. Basically, abandoning people who work this us. It really does affect national security for the long run," he said.

Meanwhile, thousands of Afghans are still waiting. And many, like the 30-year-old former worker in Kabul, continue to believe in their work with the U.S.

"We are helping, we are doing something for our country," he said, "and I am really grateful from Americans that they are helping us to do that. That's why I am working, that's why I carry on working with them, as long as I am alive."

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project -- a collaboration of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, KPCC-Los Angeles, and WUSF-Tampa, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.