“First of all I was shocked,” said Mohammad Shoaib Walizada, after he heard about U.S. forces withdrawing from Afghanistan. “Our life is in danger,” he added. For four years, Shoaib Walizada worked as an interpreter for the U.S. army. He was on the battlefield, shoulder to shoulder with American soldiers. Now, he is scared to go outside because he fears the Taliban will retaliate against him. “They are trying their best to find us. To target us and to kill us.”
“This is the biggest fear. After the withdrawal, it [will] happen for us. I am sure,” said Ahmad Fahim Ahmadi. Fahim Ahmadi was a laundry supervisor at an American base in Kabul for over four years. “We are the infidels to the Taliban.”
Shoaib Walizada and Fahim Ahmadi are amongst tens of thousands of Afghan nationals who worked for the U.S. government during the war that began in 2001. These individuals served as interpreters, drivers, and other critical positions over the last 20 years. Their status as U.S. allies makes them prime targets for the Taliban. According to a report by the U.N. Monitoring Team, the insurgent group is “emboldened,” and it now contests or controls “an estimated 50 to 70% of Afghan territory outside of urban centers…” The report says 2020 was the “most violent year ever recorded by the United Nations in Afghanistan.” Since 2014, more than 300 Afghan interpreters or their family members have been killed, according to the advocacy group No One Left Behind.
Knowing the dangers these allies face after helping U.S. troops abroad, in 2009 the State Department introduced the Special Immigrant Visa program, or SIV. These visas provide legal permanent residence in the United States to those who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government.
President Joe Biden promised a full withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. But with Thursday’s departure of American troops from Bagram, Afghanistan’s largest airbase, time is running out. Roughly 650 troops remain on the ground in Kabul to protect the U.S embassy, officials say. On June 5th, the Afghans Left Behind Association, a group that represents hundreds of employees, penned a letter to President Biden and other U.S. government officials pleading for “immediate action.” And on June 25th, they held a demonstration near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
60 Minutes+ spoke to some of those translators left behind for an upcoming project. These are their stories.
“We used to always say that the decisive terrain is the human terrain,” said retired General David H. Petraeus, a former C.I.A. director and the former Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. During an interview with 60 Minutes +, Gen. Petraeus said interpreters were “invaluable,” and that they served a critical role in understanding “the culture, the religion… how the country’s supposed to run, how it really runs.” But they do more than just help American troops with cultural competence, he said, “they are risking their lives alongside our soldiers on the ground. They are part of the brotherhood of the close fight.”
STRUGGLING TO STAY ALIVE
The SIV application is a 14-step process that takes, on average, 996 days to process, according to a joint State and DHS 2021 quarterly report. The lengthy application consists of three stages: application, interview, and medical exam. In their letter to President Biden, the Afghans Left Behind Association asked for amendments to the eligibility rules, such as shortening the employment period criteria, foregoing the human resources letter requirement for proof of employment, speeding the visa processing time, and allowing workers whose employment was terminated as well as those who failed their polygraph test.
Though there is an allocation of 26,500 SIVs, because of bureaucratic roadblocks, many go unused.
In response to Afghanistan’s third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, on June 13th the U.S. Embassy in Kabul announced that it would suspend all visa operations. Rep. Michael McCaul, the Republican leader on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that the halt “only further exacerbates the situation for those awaiting their Special Immigrant Visas.”
One of the main barriers translators face is a lack of response by their employers. Part of the visa process requires applicants to receive a human resources letter and proof of employment. According to the nonprofit No One Left Behind, there are more than 100 government contractors who have failed to provide proper employee verification.
“This was a very big decision for me, my family and my small children’s lives,” says former translator Khan. (He asked that his first name be withheld over security concerns). He tells 60 Minutes+ that he wrote to his former employer over 50 times and has not heard back. His SIV application was denied because he was unable to obtain an HR letter from the contractor who hired him. “From one side, the Taliban [is] shooting us. From the other side, the embassy [is] sending denial letters…” he says. “This happened to [me] because I supported the US army in my country.” Khan tells 60 Minutes+ that his younger brother and father were killed in 2008 by the Taliban in retaliation to his work with the U.S military.
Though President Biden stated that no Afghan ally will be left behind, no real action has been taken to secure their extraction. “They’re welcome here,” President Biden said to reporters last week. “Just like anyone else who risked their lives to help us.”
Some lawmakers and officials have discussed relocating Afghans to countries with ties to the United States, like Guam, while they await the processing of their visa requests.The Biden Administration has not confirmed relocation however, and says they are continuing to focus on accelerating the SIV process. “We are working with Congress right now to streamline some of the requirements that slow this process down and we’re doing the kind of extensive planning for potential evacuation, should that become necessary,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last month. Questions still remain about the specifics, including what will happen to those whose applications have been previously denied and if any applicants would be sent back to Afghanistan if their visas are denied.
Last week, the House voted overwhelmingly to speed up the SIV process, waiving a requirement for applicants to undergo medical examinations in Afghanistan before qualifying. The bill, if passed by the Senate, would allow applicants to complete their medical examinations within 30 days of arriving in the U.S.
Separate legislation to be voted on would also increase the number of available visas by 8,000, bringing the total to 19,000. There are currently more than 18,000 pending SIV applications as of 2019.
Several interpreters we spoke to say they feel forgotten.
“I think we do have a moral obligation to those who literally risked their lives alongside our soldiers on the ground,” said Gen. Petraeus. “The risk was already very real. It becomes much greater, needless to say, once we leave.”
Roya Heydari contributed reporting.