Save the Visa Program for Afghan Interpreters

By Sarah Feinberg and Daniel L. Davis

In the upcoming weeks, the Senate will take up the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual legislation that authorizes funding and lays out policy priorities for a wide range of defense activities, including a program to provide visas to Afghan interpreters, which has received bipartisan support since its creation in 2007. The program is in danger of becoming a casualty of the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment within today’s politics.

The Special Immigrant Visas for Afghan Interpreters program has garnered bipartisan support because of the risk that the interpreters have taken for the United States. If the program lapses, as many as 10,000 individuals will face likely harm or even death from anti-American forces. That is a good enough reason alone to support an extension.

But the U.S. also has a military interest in continuing the special immigrant visa program. Ending it will not just put the lives of Afghan interpreters at risk. It will also cost us our moral credibility and hurt U.S. military operations for years to come.

Consider what happened in Iraq and what is already happening in Afghanistan. When the military left Iraq, those Iraqis who took a risk to work with American and NATO forces were the first to be killed. The Taliban in Afghanistan is actively targeting our Afghan interpreters and in Iraq, it is estimated that 1,000 interpreters were murdered by anti-government terror groups. One estimate claims that an interpreter is killed every 36 hours.

As veterans of both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we relied heavily on these translators to successfully complete our missions. One of those Afghans who provided faithful and valuable service was a man named Salarzai. He served as the Cultural Advisor to U.S. Forces in eastern Afghanistan and was invaluable to the U.S. commander in his area. He helped American forces form effective strategies and gain the support of local civilians, as well as working with us to find Taliban hiding among the general population. 

Unsurprisingly, Salarzai and his children have been threatened by the Taliban for his assistance to the U.S. The threats are so heightened that he no longer allows his children to attend school for fear of exposing them to attacks of retaliation.

We promised men like Salarzai a visa to the United States if they put their lives on the line in support of American interests. But five years later, Salarzai and his children are still waiting and hiding.

Not all interpreters have been left behind like the Salarzai family. Some were lucky and received a visa. One example is the Nassery family which resettled to Washington, D.C. last December. Arif Nassery was an interpreter for USAID, and due to threats from the Taliban, he went into hiding with his wife and three children for over a year while the State Department processed his visa. He was one of the few to receive a visa and get out of the country in time to save his immediate family. The Nassery family is part of our community, and while watching our children safely play together, one can’t help but think of the families who will not be so fortunate.

We have a moral obligation to do everything we can to keep these interpreters and their families safe. As Congressman Seth Moulton put it, these interpreters “put their lives on the line not just for their country, but for ours. The very least we can offer them is a chance to stay alive.”

After 15 years of combat operations and over 2,000 Americans killed, Americans are rightfully asking whether nation building in Afghanistan has made us safer here at home. If we abandon the Afghan interpreters who risked their lives to further our stated interests in their home country, we guarantee that we have made their families less safe.

The anti-immigrant political climate has caused some lawmakers to rethink their support for the visa program for Afghan interpreters. This is a big mistake. Even if those lawmakers are not swayed by stories from the Salarzai or Nassery families and are not persuaded that the U.S. has a moral obligation to act, they should consider the consequences of repealing the program for our national security. If we are unwilling to protect the lives of the Afghan interpreters who served with our military, we risk damaging our credibility and effectiveness for years to come.

When the U.S. operates on foreign soil, it is crucial that we have interpreters from the local area who know the people, culture, history, and geography. If people in foreign lands hear stories about Salarzai’s bad experience rather than Arif’s story of hope, fewer will trust the word of America and be willing to risk their lives in the future. Without interpreters our difficult counterinsurgency task is made almost impossible. 

As the Senate debates the NDAA reauthorization, they should include an extension of the Special Immigrant Visa program to the remaining Afghan interpreters who are living in fear for their lives. It is both a moral obligation and critical for U.S. national security.

The fact that we’re even having this debate is evidence that politicians are often unable or unwilling to consider the long-term consequences of foreign intervention—which should cause us to rethink our approach internationally. In the meantime, failing to reauthorize the program will undercut America’s values and limit our tactical effectiveness. We must do better. 

 

Sarah Feinberg is a Marine Captain who served from 2007-2012 including a tour in Iraq (whose family hosts the Nassery family in their D.C.-area home). Daniel Davis is a retired U.S. Army Colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan (encountering Mr. Salazier). They are both fellows with Defense Priorities. 

This piece was originally published by Politico on May 31, 2016. Read more HERE

Photo courtesy of wikimedia.