Agha was 22 when he decided in 2010 to work for the United States. American soldiers had invaded their country, Afghanistan, and needed translators to communicate with the local population. Agha knew the risk: the Taliban terrorist organization chased people like him, calling them traitors. But he believed in his employer’s promise: once his job was finished, he could receive a special visa and migrate to the United States.
What he didn’t know was that the process would be, in his words, torture. Agha – he only reveals his nickname, for security reasons – filed papers in 2014. It took him six years to get his visa in mid 2020. “A promise made by the United States meant a lot to me”, he said, now 33 years old. years. “I experienced at the same time the mixture of the fear of dying and the hope of being able to leave Afghanistan. It was one of the most traumatic things of my life. “
And Agha was one of the lucky ones. There are 18,000 open cases of former Afghan officials, including translators, who hope the US government will keep its promise and reward them for risking their lives for the invader of their country. This humanitarian crisis has reached a critical point now that the United States is withdrawing its troops. In a few months, when the stampede is over, these people will be at the mercy of the Taliban.
This situation should leave an indelible mark on the already controversial American campaign in Afghanistan. The United States invaded the country after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, ousting Osama bin Laden. They toppled the government of the radical Taliban organization and promised to bring peace.
The moment has won over young men like Khalil Arab. Born in 1986, he was part of the so-called “war generation”, which had never experienced peace. He saw the Soviet invaders, the civil war, the Taliban takeover and the arrival of the Americans. “We had high hopes, we said to ourselves that it would be a good opportunity to change country,” he confides, at 35 years old. He started working as a plumber for the international coalition in 2004. He learned English and a year later got a job as an interpreter.
In addition to becoming a target for the Taliban, Arab says, it has become a particularly fragile target. “We were not only identified as enemies, but as vulnerable enemies because we were civilians. I’ve never held a weapon in my life, ”he says. In 2010, he heard a rumor in his neighborhood that extremists were looking for him. He decided to flee to Europe and obtained a visa for Poland. With the threats he knew he couldn’t go back and he is elated when he tells her that. He applied for a visa for the United States in 2013. He only got it in 2019.
“It was a terrifying time, even being safe in Europe,” he says. “I didn’t just feel abandoned, I also felt betrayed by the people I had helped. We were the cogs of the American forces in Afghanistan. The United States must save translators, and quickly. “
For Cress Clippard, a former U.S. soldier who served in Afghanistan from 2012 to 2016, the government doesn’t seem to understand how much translators like Agha and Arab have sacrificed. Clippard is now a volunteer with the Combined Arms, an organization that supports Afghans in Houston, Texas. Basically, he treats performers like he treats American veterans.
Clippard tells the dramatic story of Mohammed, an Afghan who waited ten years for a visa. He was killed last December, in front of his son. Humanitarian organizations have mobilized to pressure the United States to at least save the interpreter’s family. They have just arrived in Houston, where they were greeted by Clippard. “Mohammed sacrificed himself because he believed in us. We will do our best to take care of your family, but our government has let them down.”
The delay, common to all these special visa applications, is the result of redundant and inefficient bureaucracy. “We waste a lot of time sending files back and forth,” explains Sunil Varghese, one of the directors of the IRAP (International Refugee Assistance Project). This organization provides free legal aid to Afghan interpreters, helping them overcome American mazes.
Several US government weapons collide with documents. Afghans also struggle to prove that they actually work for the United States. They need letters of recommendation from supervisors who are deceased or have left the country, which makes the process difficult. “It takes years for the government to confirm that a person was an employee … of the government itself,” he said.
As an example of the bureaucratic torture he suffered, Agha says he must have sent more than 100 emails to US authorities to explain an anomaly in his documents. There was a one-year difference between his passport and his translator badge – the result, he says, of a local culture in which children are not always registered immediately. “I had to explain to them that the Taliban would not give up killing me just because of an error in my documents.”
In addition to the humanitarian crisis, the abandonment of Afghan translators also poses a threat to US national security and foreign policy. The United States depends on interpreters to mediate its contacts with the populations of the countries it invades – another example is Iraq. “If we break our promises and put these people at risk, no one will cooperate with us. It will hurt our goals abroad, ”says Varghese.
At this point, it is unclear how the United States could deliver on its promise to Afghan officials. Soldiers must leave the country before the announced September 11 deadline, which means the government has months to process visas for 18,000 people and their families.
Under the current circumstances, the situation is unlikely to end well. In addition to the usual delay, the US diplomatic representation in Kabul has been closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. One solution presented by humanitarian organizations is for the United States to evacuate the Afghans to neighboring territory – as it did with 130,000 Vietnamese in 1975 – and then process the visas without the risk of retaliation from the Taliban.
“I don’t understand why the authorities still haven’t found a solution,” said veteran Clippard. “Getting Afghans out of the country should be the top priority of the US government.”