As War Nears An End, Our Afghan Translators Are Being Left Behind

While the U.S. has spent billions on translators, who often place themselves and their families at risk to work with coalition forces, just 50 Afghan translators have received visas this year, reports Jesse Ellison.

Like many young men, Khalilullah Yewazi served with the U.S. Army. But when his unit went home, he was left behind.

Yewazi, an Afghan national, began working as an interpreter with the U.S. military in 2006, when he was 20 years old, accompanying units on patrol in the Nuristan and Kunar provinces, among the most dangerous in the country. In May 2009, during a mission to repair a collapsed bridge in a remote northeastern valley, the soldiers he was with were ambushed; shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade peppered the right side of his body, maiming him so badly that doctors initially told him he’d lose his right hand. As he recovered at Bagram Air Base, his unit returned to the States.

Now, with the surge done and withdrawal planned for 2014, Yewazi has found himself alone in a nation where, he says, many see him as an infidel, a traitor to his people, a “piece of shit” for working with the occupiers.

“If I try to go to my home town (in the Kunar province) I’d be killed,” he wrote in an email, “and beheaded because I have worked for coalition forces and everyone knows that in my area.”

So he’s in Kabul, where it’s easier to be anonymous. The treatment for his injury included four surgeries over a period of a year and a half, and his right hand still hasn’t regained its full functionality. Late last year, he was finally able to work again, and he went back to translating—this time for Czech troops. But he didn’t feel safe, and so he quit six months later.

Now he mostly waits, and hopes, to be approved for the visa to the United States that he’s been trying to obtain for almost six years.

There are two separate Special Immigrant Visas for which translators like him are eligible: one, specifically for Afghans who have worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government, allocates 1,500 such cases each year; the other, for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters, has a cap of 5,000. But according to State Department figures, last year, only 719 people (representing 310 separate cases) entered the country under the visas last year—and just 101 of them (or 35 cases) were Afghans.

The total number of SIVs given has gone up significantly this year, to 1,393 cases representing 3,302 individuals so far—perhaps a result of heightened media scrutiny brought on in large part by The List, a documentary about Iraqi interpreters. But the Afghan nationals who have served faithfully with U.S. and coalition forces have received less attention, and they represent just 3 percent of this year’s figures: 109 Afghans have arrived under the program in 2012—50 translators, along with 59 of their family members.

There are virtually no reliable numbers indicating just how many translators have worked for the United States in these wars, nor are there figures as to how many have been killed. Titan Corp., a defense contractor that for a period provided the bulk of the interpreters to the U.S. military in Iraq, hired some 8,000 to fill those roles between 2003 and 2008. In that time, at least 360 were killed.

Compared with those who have worked in Iraq, translators in Afghanistan (the company most of the Afghans work for refers to them as linguists, while the State Department refers to them as translators/interpreters) face both greater threats and greater scrutiny. In 2010 one interpreter killed two soldiers on a base and wounded another. And a recent series of insider attacks have undermined trust in the Afghan army and policemen who we once trusted as allies.

But most coalition soldiers see translators, who work directly for coalition troops and under the command, as indispensible allies, unlike the Afghan uniformed service members who are viewed much more warily.

“Our success or failure depended on” translators, says Erik Malmstrom, a former Army infantry officer who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007. “They are so pivotal to what we are doing ... We focus on the sacrifices Americans make, but they pale in comparison to the sacrifices the people on the ground bear. I fear for these guys.”

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During Malmstrom’s deployment, he commanded a rifle platoon in the Nuristan and Kunar provinces, with Yewazi was as his main interpreter. Every interpreter the infantry officer worked with—about six to eight in all—asked for letters attesting to their work, and the fact that they’re deserving of visas, and he did his best to comply. “I think I’ve done a decent job honoring them,” he says. “But I don’t have the bandwidth to shepherd all of them ... It’s really confusing. It’s unclear to both the interpreter and the person trying to help them how this process works.”

Malmstrom first started helping Yewazi with his application in 2007, when his deployment was finishing up, but his efforts took on a new urgency after Yewazi’s injury. “He took huge risks for me,” he says. “I feel duty-bound to him. I feel like it’s my obligation, and also I’m genuinely concerned for his safety. I worry that one day his luck is going to run out and something bad will happen.”

Malmstrom says he sent a series of letters to the various offices responsible for providing Yewazi with the documentation he needed to move the process along—but those emails and messages went unanswered. By then, in 2010, he was a student at Harvard University studying for a joint degree from the Business School and the Kennedy School of Government, and he started calling in favors from everyone he could think of. He had high-level contacts from his time in the Army, and he was able to relay his request to someone with real pull, who he asked not be identified at all to avoid causing any problems with Yewazi’s application.

This past summer, Yewazi was finally issued the letter he’d been waiting for, attesting to his years serving the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

But that doesn’t mean he’s able to leave Afghanistan. The dates of his employment with the contractor didn’t match those given in his letters, which delayed the process another few weeks, and Yewazi still has to go through an interview process and then security clearance before he may be allowed to immigrate to America.

Columbus, Ohio–based Mission Essential Personnel has contracted with the U.S. Army to provide linguists to American forces in Afghanistan since winning a 2007 contract worth $414 million. (Since then, that contract has been reupped several times and is now worth more than $2 billion.) Last year, the company had revenue of $725.5 million—making it easily the world’s largest language-services provider.

While some of the translators MEP provides are U.S. citizens, usually of Afghan descent, the great majority are Afghan nationals. As of mid-October, 5,816 of the linguists currently working for the company are Afghan nationals, while 1,080 come from the U.S., according to spokesperson Rob Glenn. He declined to comment on how much linguists are paid by the company, but previous reports have estimated that while Americans can make upwards of $200,000 a year, local hires earn 5 percent as much, around $900 a month.

Malmstrom and Yewazi are both understandably reluctant to criticize the contracting company that employed not just Yewazi but the bulk of some 8,000 interpreters working on behalf of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Neither of them want to anger an organization that still could impact the outcome of Yewazi’s visa and ability to leave Afghanistan.

But others are harsh in their assessments. Zoe Bedell was twice deployed as a Marine in Afghanistan, and she served as an officer in charge of the Female Engagement Team—a group of female service members who served on the front lines in Afghanistan, building relationships that cultural norms prevented their male counterparts from establishing. Finding female interpreters to accompany her unit into the field was a challenge, and almost all of the translators she worked with while there were foreign nationals, since getting Afghan women to leave their homes to spend months with foreign troops would have been, she says, “unfathomable.”

She calls the contractors who provide the linguists the “biggest scandal” of all of the U.S. engagement there, because the outsourcing of a role that is both critical and hard to fill has created a lucrative system in which linguists are treated as commodities, instead of people.

“The incentives are that they have to generate bodies who are theoretically competent in the language,” says Bedell. “But they are making so much money, there’s a huge opportunity to abuse the system,” and little incentive to take care of the linguists once their work is done.

Glenn says that since 2007, 418 of the company’s linguists have successfully been awarded SIVs and emigrated to the United States. In that same span, 104 of their linguists have been killed in combat and 478 have been wounded. He didn’t say how many had been killed or wounded outside of combat, in reprisal attacks for working with coalition forces or other circumstances.

“The contractors are the problem,” says Muhib Nuristani, Yewazi’s brother-in-law and himself a former interpreter for the U.S. Navy in Afghanistan, who did receive one of the rare SIVs for his service. “They are using the interpreters like tissue paper. They don’t care about their lives or what’s going to happen to them, they just care about how much money they are making.”

Glenn vigorously disagreed with that assessment, saying the company values its linguists and does everything in its power to support them, including collaborating with the Department of State and the Department of Defense in teaching a class to both service members and linguists on how to properly complete their visa applications.

“It’s a war zone,” he says. “The military members have their primary mission ... Doing paperwork to help a linguist is probably not one of the things that they trained on.”

Nuristani thinks his visa was the exception that proves the rule, an expected reward after he was briefly abducted by the Taliban while working for a high-level U.S. commander. Since arriving in San Diego in 2009, he has worked at Walmart and at a software company working on translation.

In 2011 he returned to Afghanistan as a translator. He needed the insurance benefits the job provided, he says, for his wife, their 2-year-old daughter, and the son they have on the way, who remained in California.

Just two months ago, near the end of his time here, an interpreter was killed, he said. The man, who was last seen driving home from work on the base, had been beheaded, and his head was placed in the driveway of his home, he told me with an eerie calmness.

And then he explained how many of the interpreters that he works with there had left school and started working with the Americans in the hopes that they would eventually be able to emigrate to this country and study more extensively.

“There’s still a window of opportunity to do something” about how translators are treated, he says. “Now more than ever it’s important that we address these problems. If we don’t do it now, it may be too late.”

As for Yewazi, Malmstrom says he’s frustrated about the lengthy process to pay back his interpreter but determined to continue. “There is no reason it should have taken two years to get to this point,” he says.

“It infuriates me. I was a junior officer in Afghanistan six years ago. We went off into a valley peddling this line:

“‘We’re here to help you. We want to bring development, good government, security to this area. We need you to trust us.’

“You give this stump speech—‘we are going to be with you through thick and thin’—and then we screw them.”

--with reporting by Betsy Rate