The US Is Dragging Its Feet When It Comes to Helping Afghan Translators

As the U.S. prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, Ibrahim Khan is just one of thousands of Afghan interpreters who helped U.S. forces, often under fire, and are still waiting for visas.

As the United States brings tens of thousands of troops home from Afghanistan this year and attention shifts from the battlefield to care for the wounded, there is another group of veterans the country must not forget.

Thousands of Afghan interpreters who have risked their lives alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan now face death threats from the Taliban and other insurgent groups—and so qualify for U.S. visas. But the U.S. government has proved disappointingly slow in granting those visas.

For the past three years, my husband and I have worked to try to secure U.S. visas for three courageous Afghan interpreters who worked with the U.S. military for much of the past decade, Ibrahim “Abe” Khan and his younger brothers, Ismail (“Ish”) and Imran.

We’ve written letters, completed paperwork, and spent hours on the phone with visa offices to push through bureaucratic obstacles. When the process stalled, we appealed for help from State Department officials, to no avail. So we contacted Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose staff’s inquiries at the State Department were more fruitful. McCain’s interest helped put Ish and Imran on a fast track. But Abe’s more complicated case went nowhere.

The bottom line: it appears that in many cases the visa applications languish in a labyrinthine security review process—and nothing short of the glare of media publicity and high-level intervention can pry them loose. The irony is that the Afghans have already proven their reliability and trustworthiness in the heat of battle.

Abe, for example, is one of the bravest men I know. He risked his life alongside U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2012, including a firefight that earned one of his U.S. comrades the Medal of Honor.

On the cold, dark morning of January 25, 2008, Abe was on patrol with U.S. Army Special Forces Staff Sgt. Robert Miller and his team in Afghanistan’s eastern Konar Province when suddenly they came under a brutal ambush. Dozens of insurgents fired rifles and machine guns from positions in a steep valley above them. Miller fearlessly led the charge and was shot, but kept fighting until he dropped—an act of valor for which he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Repeatedly braving heavy fire, Abe helped recover Miller’s body and evacuate the wounded, including the Special Forces team leader, then Captain Robert Cusick.

“During this battle, [Abe] performed just as well as the detachment members,” Cusick wrote in a letter of recommendation for Abe in October 2013.

Abe didn’t stop there, Cusick said. “Upon returning to Afghanistan in 2009, I contacted Ibrahim to travel across the country to come serve as our interpreter. Without questioning or regard for his own safety, [Abe] showed up at our front gate to work as our interpreter. His loyalty and dedication to supporting U.S. forces is unsurpassed.”

Cusick met with Abe in late 2013 and presented him with his own Medal of Honor.

Abe and an estimated 5,000 Afghans considered in danger of retribution for their service to the American government and military are still waiting for U.S. visas. Less than a quarter of the available visas allotted for Afghan allies by Congress under a program started in 2009 have been issued. Meanwhile, new applications continue to pour in as a September 2014 cut-off date nears. Advocacy groups such as the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which also helps Afghans, are concerned that with a shortage of time and only 3,000 available visas, the United States will leave many deserving Afghans behind.

In January, we were overjoyed when Abe’s brother Imran received his U.S. visa and together with his wife came to live with us in Seattle. Ish and his wife and two young sons are expected to receive their visas and join us here within a month.

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Yet still, Abe—and so many others—remain in jeopardy.

On a trip to Afghanistan in September 2013, I reached out directly to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and to the U.S. military command. Officials advised me that often the only way to achieve momentum in stalled cases such as Abe’s was through public pressure. Last month, with this article underway, Abe received an email from the embassy for the first time in years—but his outcome remains uncertain.

Like the American soldiers he fought alongside, Abe suffers the mental wounds of war—haunted by strange nightmares that leave him agitated and lonely. In 2012, I saw Abe’s courage up close when he laid down machine gun fire in multiple enemy attacks on our location in Konar Province. Abe never left an American on the battlefield, and like other veterans of our wars he should have our support now.

Ann Scott Tyson is the author of ++ American Spartan: The Promise, The Mission, and The Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant ++ [], which describes the extraordinary mission of Maj. Jim Gant, a decorated Green Beret who helped change the face of the Afghanistan war when his 2009 paper “One Tribe at a Time” went viral within influential military communities, and led top U.S. commanders such as Gen. David Petraeus to use Gant’s ideas to catapult a bold new local security initiative in Afghanistan.