A U.S. Army company commander uses one of his interpreters to consult with tribal elders in a village in Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan following an air assault. (Photo: Ward Carroll)
It was early morning, still dark at Fort Bragg when one of my teammates called from Afghanistan with bad news.
“Both Juma and Ish have been killed,” he said, without any attempt to hide the fact that he’d been crying.
It was May 2006, and the bulk of our unit was one month away from another deployment to Afghanistan. Two of our best interpreters had been stopped at a Taliban checkpoint. A fighter recognized them. He knew they’d been working with the Americans. Their bodies were found the next morning, brutally tortured and mutilated.
I went numb as the words continued through the phone. I scrambled for a note pad to try to capture all the information. It was too much to process. As soon as everyone mustered in the team room, I broke the news. The impact was immediate. To us, it was no different than losing a fellow American soldier.
Congress has authorized 8,750 visas for Afghan interpreters, but only 1,982 have been issued through December, according to the Los Angeles Times. Thousands of interpreters are in jeopardy as the State Department tries to clear the logjam of applications for the Special Immigrant Visa.
The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which also assists Afghan refugees, told the Times the SIV process is “prohibitively complicated, bureaucratic and opaque.” The group ran into the same problem at the end of the Iraq War when only slightly more than 6,500 out of 25,000 visas were issued to Iraqi interpreters.
As a Special Forces officer with eight deployments, I can tell you without a doubt that Afghans who have risked their lives, families and futures are going to be left behind to face horrific consequences, like Juma and Ish did, for aiding the United States.
This will have a lasting impact on future wars and U.S. strategic interests. As American forces track terrorists in the Arabian Peninsula and across the African continent, we will need local assistance at many levels, specifically interpreters. Leaving our Afghan allies to die is a clear warning to anyone who would even think about assisting the US in its foreign policy or strategy that unless you are on the Department of State or CIA payroll, you will be left to die.
Interpreters are our eyes and ears when deployed. They know the local customs, cultural norms and religion. They can see when things are out of place and they understand the nuisance of the villages and tribes. When American forces arrived in Afghanistan in 2001, we knew nothing. Our interpreters have kept us safe and even helped us fight. But they also became part of our units, teams and families.
Take Jerry for example.
Jerry (a nickname we gave him) was my personal interpreter during Operation Medusa, the largest Coalition operation in ISAF history. A 22-year-old kid, he emulated our speech, dressed in our uniform and even chewed neswar, the Afghan version of Copenhagen, like the other members of the team.
Prior to the mission, he had gotten married. We told him he could sit this operation out since we knew it was going to be very dangerous and he was a newlywed.
“I don’t think so, my brother,” he said in Pashtu.
Jerry liked to make me practice my Pashtu so that I understood what was being said in tribal meetings behind my back. I remember him smiling like a Cheshire cat, his short thick beard and black curly hair sticking out from under the Special Forces ball cap I had given him as he said, “If you go, I go. If you die, I die.”
Two months after the battle, we were maneuvering thru a village when the vehicle Jerry was riding in struck an IED. As I approached the mangled truck, the first thing I saw in the dirt was Jerry’s burned ball cap.
I turned to go call in a Medevac. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jerry struggling to stand against a mud wall. In spite of the fact that he had been blown nearly 30 feet in to the air, he was holding his broken weapon and pulling security.
His scrawny legs wobbled in misery. He was bloody and covered in dirt. He lived up to his promise to die with us. I made the commitment then and there that I would not leave him, nor the others interpreters like him behind.
Since I left Afghanistan in 2012, Jerry has been attacked in his mosque, moved his family nearly a dozen times and survived being shot three times. His last email to me was a desperate plea.
“I’m 24-hour in house not coming out like jailer, bro,” he wrote. “Thanks again for keeping asking me, brother. I wish I didn’t have my two daughters suffer if I die. I would be (in) paradise if I see you in the State with my Family. Please help us.”
I’ve written letters, emails, and made hundreds of phone calls trying to pry loose a half dozen applications of interpreters I worked with in Afghanistan. I feel betrayed by the American immigration policy and the deadly double standard it represents. We will accept immigrants who snuck across our borders illegally but not heroes who have served our nation and its cause.
Afghan Interpreters are throwing themselves at the altar of freedom only to be left to die. To State Department bureaucrats, these men are pieces of paper, but to thousands of American soldiers, they are brothers in arms.
They should be allowed to live in peace and freedom. They’ve earned it.