Wednesday, March 12, 2014
By Kevin Sieff
The Washington Post
KABUL, Afghanistan — A growing number of Afghan interpreters who worked alongside American troops are being denied U.S. visas allotted by Congress because the State Department says there is no serious threat against their lives.
An Afghan man inspects the scene of a suicide bombing in Khost province in October 2012 that killed three NATO soldiers, an Afghan interpreter and at least nine civilians. The State Department rejects the claims by many interpreters who helped U.S. forces that they face “serious threats” in Afghanistan.
But the interpreters say U.S. officials are drastically underestimating the danger they face. Immigration attorneys and Afghan interpreters say the denials are occurring just as concerns about Taliban retribution are mounting due to the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
“There are tons of Talibs in my village, and they all know that I worked with the Americans,” said one interpreter, Mohammad, who asked that his last name not be published for security reasons. “If I can’t go to the States, my life is over. I swear to God, one day the Taliban will catch me.”
Mohammad received a U.S. form letter saying he had failed to establish that there was a “serious threat” against his life. He had explained in his application that the Taliban had spotted him on the job and spread word in his village that he was a wanted man.
In one particularly dangerous assignment, he was asked to mediate between U.S. soldiers and locals after an American convoy ran over and killed an Afghan child, he said.
In the initial phase of the visa process, “an applicant has to establish that he or she has experienced or is experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of employment by or on behalf of the U.S. government,” said Robert Hilton, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
He said the applications were examined by an embassy committee, which decided whether they should move forward to Washington.
Hilton and other U.S. officials would not explain what constitutes a “serious threat” or discuss specific cases in which applicants were denied visas.
Another interpreter who was denied a visa had worked for years at a U.S. military prison screening visitors. U.S. military officers wrote several letters stating that his job put him in particular danger because of his constant contact with the families of detained militants.
But the State Department review board said those concerns didn’t amount to a “serious threat,” the man said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of concerns for his safety.
A third interpreter, who received a similar denial and gave only his partial name, Naseri, survived three attacks by improvised bombs on the military units he accompanied during a five-year stint. He said he explained in a visa interview at the U.S. Embassy that he had been called a “spy and a traitor” while on patrol with his American unit and that the Taliban knew where he and his family lived.
Several U.S. military officers wrote letters to the State Department about the role Naseri played.
“Every house we went into, he went into. Every firefight we went into, he went into,” said Lt. Matt Orr, who worked with Naseri in one of the most dangerous corners of eastern Afghanistan. He said he was baffled when Naseri was denied a visa.
“I feel a real sense of frustration with the bureaucratic mess that would do something like this,” Orr said.
DISGUISES NOT ENOUGH
Afghan interpreters who work with the U.S. military generally wear masks and assume phony American names to disguise their identities. But they say the Taliban often hears about their association with American forces.
A former U.S. Marine interpreter named Mustafa was kidnapped and killed outside Kabul in August. His colleagues said he had completed his visa interview several days before his death. A photo of his body was posted on the page of a Facebook group interpreters use to exchange information about their visa applications.
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