The Tragic Fate of the Afghan Interpreters the U.S. Left Behind

These men risked their lives for the U.S. military. Now many would like to come to America but are stranded — and in danger

Waiting three years for his visa to come through, Wahdat rarely left his home. Erin Trieb
“Right now I’m jobless, no money, no house,” says Omid. “My dad takes care of me, my wife, my kids.” Fired as an interpreter in 2012, he says he was falsely accused of stealing an Army generator after he sought a leave to care for his sick son. The boy has meningitis and may go blind without care unavailable in Afghanistan. Erin Trieb
Sakhidad Afghan’s mother describes her slain son as a “really liked person” and says he went to work as an interpreter because her sick husband couldn’t. “I must get them educated,” she recalls him saying of his nieces and nephews. Now, she says, she worries about her two sons who smuggled themselves into Indonesia. Erin Trieb
Wahdat arrived in Washington, D.C. this summer. “It’s not just about the threats that you are facing,” he said before he received his ticket out of Afghanistan. “It’s the social hate which is towards you.” He said he had traumatic memories of the combat he saw during his four years as an interpreter. “We are veterans. I believe that we are veterans,” he said. “We were, mentally, so much more under pressure.” Erin Trieb
Back in Kabul, Kenny’s father, an air force officer who is also under threat, keeps a rooftop vigil. Erin Trieb
Fearing for his safety, Wahdat at times wore a gun. Erin Trieb
In 2013 a veteran interpreter called Kenny, who had lost much of his hearing in a bomb blast, was downsized. He sought a new job but failed a security check, sinking his hopes for a visa to the U.S. “If I am a bad guy,” he now asks, “how can I work in the Army for ten years?” He’s studying business in Kabul and watching his back. Erin Trieb
Afghan Saquedat’s brother prays over his grave. Afghan was murdered by the Taliban after being stopped at a checkpoint. Erin Trieb

Sakhidad Afghan was 19 when he started working as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, in 2009. His father was sick and he wanted to help support their extended family of 18. In his first year, he saw combat with the Marines in the Battle of Marjah, but he remained an interpreter until the fall of 2014, when American troops drew down and his job disappeared. By then he’d received an anonymous death threat over the phone, so he’d applied for a special visa to live in the United States. He’d been in the application pipeline for three years when, in March 2015, he went to see about a new interpreting job in Helmand.

Days later, one of his brothers got a phone call from a cousin, asking him to come over and look at a picture that had been posted on Facebook. The picture was of Sakhidad; he had been tortured and killed and left by the side of the road. He was 24. A letter bearing the Taliban flag was found stuffed into a pants pocket. It warned that three of his brothers, who also worked for coalition forces, were in for the same.

Sakhidad Afghan’s death reflects an overlooked legacy of America’s longest, and ongoing, war: the threat to Afghans who served the U.S. mission there. In 2014, the International Refugee Assistance Project, a nonprofit based in New York City, estimated that an Afghan interpreter was being killed every 36 hours.

The visa that Sakhidad Afghan was waiting for was intended as a lifeline for interpreters who are threatened. Congress approved the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program in 2009, and some 9,200 Afghans have received an SIV, along with 17,000 of their dependents. But the number of visas has lagged behind the demand, as has the pace at which the State Department awarded them. By law, an application is supposed to be processed within nine months; it often takes years. And now, unless Congress extends the program, it will close to applicants at the end of this year. An estimated 10,000 interpreters may be left vulnerable—a prospect that the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson, warned could “bolster the propaganda of our enemies.”

Zakir served for three years but was fired for reasons he says no one explained. He has been denied a U.S. visa six times. Erin Trieb
Downsized in 2012, Haidari lives in a separate province from his family, for their safety, while awaiting a visa. Erin Trieb
Fardin is still tracking down documents needed to apply. Erin Trieb
Ewaz recalls his slain colleague and friend Sakhidad Afghan. Erin Trieb

The United States has a history of modifying immigration laws to take in foreigners who aided its overseas aims and came to grief for it—a few thousand nationalist Chinese after the 1949 Communist takeover of China, 40,000 anti-communist Hungarians after the failed rebellion against Soviet dominance in 1956, some 130,000 South Vietnamese in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War in 1975. An SIV program for Iraqi interpreters, closed to applicants in 2014, has delivered about 17,300 visas.

But Congress has been unwilling this year to renew or expand the Afghan program, for a variety of reasons. Lawmakers have taken issue with the potential cost (an estimated $446 million over ten years for adding 4,000 visas). They have questioned why so many visas had yet to be issued. Some have registered concern over the number of immigrants coming into the United States and argued that a terrorist posing as an interpreter could slip into the country.

Former soldiers who depended on interpreters say that the military already screened these men and that they passed the most basic test—they were entrusted with the lives of U.S. troops, and at times risked their own. Moreover, the SIV vetting process is rigorous, entailing no fewer than 14 steps. Documentation of service is required. So is a counterintelligence exam, which may include a polygraph. And so is proof that an applicant has come under threat. Supporters of the SIV program argue that some of the requirements are virtually impossible for some interpreters to meet. They’ve been unable to gather references from long-departed supervisors or from defunct contractors. They’ve flunked an SIV polygraph exam despite passing previous polygraphs—a problem that advocates blame on the exam, which isn’t always reliable.

One especially fraught requirement is the need to document danger. This has inspired a new literary genre called the Taliban threat letter, which warns a recipient of dire harm for having aided the enemy. Advocates say the threats are real—delivered on the phone or in person—but that the letters may be concocted for the SIV application. To be sure, Afghan authorities determined that the letter found on Sakhidad Afghan’s corpse was the real thing. But the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a recent telephone interview with Smithsonian that the Taliban does not usually send warning letters. He also said interpreters are “national traitors.”

Mashal keeps a snapshot with a U.S. soldier. Erin Trieb
Visa-related documents Erin Trieb
Mashal says the Taliban shot at a house where his family stays. Erin Trieb
Sakhidad Afghan was killed while looking for a new interpreter job. Erin Trieb
But Mohammed has lost touch with Facebook friends in the States. Erin Trieb
Denied a visa, Mohammed celebrated a nephew’s birthday. Erin Trieb
Omid wishes he still had the money he spent on his wedding and failed visa application so he could smuggle his family out of Afghanistan. Erin Trieb
The lock on the gate to where Mashal's family lives Erin Trieb
Visa rejection letters Erin Trieb
Wahdat, who served four years as a U.S. interpreter, kept a trunkful of military clothing, including a flag-emblazoned hat. Erin Trieb
Letters purportedly conveying threats from the Taliban are a standard part of interpreters’ applications for U.S. visas. Erin Trieb

The fate of Afghan interpreters left behind troubles Erin Trieb, an American photojournalist, who covered American infantry units in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011. On a trip to Kabul last year, Trieb met a man named Mashal, who had been an interpreter for nine years and was now waiting to see whether he would be approved for an SIV. “He said he wouldn’t live with his family, his wife and three daughters, for their own safety,” she says. “He pulled his daughters out of school for the same reason.”

Trieb sought out other former interpreters, to capture the anxious shadow land they inhabit. They asked that she refer to them only by partial names and that her photographs not reveal too much of their faces. “Their service in the U.S. military is this big secret in their lives,” she says. “They can’t tell their friends, they can’t tell their relatives, they don’t even talk about it with one another. They’re always looking over their shoulders.”

As for the brothers of Sakhidad Afghan who were threatened by the Taliban, two fled the country and now live in Indonesia. The third has remained behind. He drives a truck. His mother says he’s now the family’s breadwinner.

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This article is a selection from the November issue of Smithsonian magazine

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