The failures and mistakes the United States made in Iraq and Afghanistan will provide fodder for opinion pages, think tank discussions, and academic papers for years to come. Most of it is water under the bridge, but there is one chronic failure that the United States can still do something about: honoring the promise it made to Afghans who risked their lives helping the U.S. government.
This has been one of the most disgraceful narratives of the last decade for those who have followed the conflicts closely. As noted in a recent study, tens of thousands of Afghans (and Iraqis) are facing increased danger as they wait for visas promised by the United States. Despite continued advocacy from service members and veterans, the number of qualified applicants far exceeds the number of slots allocated by Congress, and processing times are perilously long.
Every reporter who has covered Iraq or Afghanistan has produced at least one story about the plight of interpreters who were promised Special Immigrant Visas for working with U.S. forces. I first reported on this for NPR in December 2011 as U.S. forces were exiting Iraq.
I received a tip about an Iraqi who went by the name “Johnnie.” He spent four years working as an interpreter for Marine and Army units because he wanted to serve his country by helping U.S. forces.
He was exactly the kind of person the United States had in mind in 2007 when it created the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program that would expedite visa processing for Iraqis who risked their lives for at least a year to help U.S. forces. The program would later expand to Afghanistan and cover locals who worked for any U.S. government agency.
The criteria were simple: work for a year (as of October 2015 Afghans have to show two years of service) and demonstrate that you faced a threat to your safety as a result of that work.
Johnnie more than qualified. He received numerous threats. One time, militants chased and shot at Johnnie and his brother, who was hit and left disabled. Militants kidnapped one of Johnnie’s other brothers in 2008, and as of the time I reported the story in 2011, he hadn’t been heard from again.
Johnnie filed all of the paperwork required for the visa, including recommendations from the U.S. forces he served with. When he risked his life to meet me at the NPR bureau, he had been waiting two-and-a-half years for the visa the United States government promised him.
I met many others like Johnnie when I was in Afghanistan from 2012 through 2014. The stories were all variations on the same theme.
People risked their lives to help U.S. forces—many chose to do so specifically because of the promise of a visa. They did their time, filed applications, and sat in limbo as they and their families faced threats. Some were killed as they waited years for a visa. Others got tired of waiting and paid smugglers enormous sums to sneak them into Europe.
Some received rejections because of unspecified “security risks,” but the lack of transparency in the process prevented them from learning about what the red flag was and explaining or appealing the adverse ruling.
In my time reporting on these cases, I found that red flags could be a result of a name matching that of a known militant—similar to no-fly list errors. In one case, I was told that an interpreter was denied a visa because he had the phone numbers of militants saved in his phone. However, there was a simple explanation—the unit he was on patrol with stopped and questioned some suspicious men and asked the interpreter to capture their numbers. Yet, he could not appeal the decision.
The SIV program is inherently risk averse. No one working for the State Department or any of the agencies vetting visa candidates wants to be responsible for letting someone into the United States who goes on to carry out a crime or terrorist attack. So, it’s simply easier to deny a candidate if there is even the slightest concern about their background. The lack of a transparent appeals process has been a failure of the system. Other failures have included the usual suspects: insufficient funding, staffing, and political will.
Right now, the United States is in the process of withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. The Unites States has a moral, and under the terms of the SIV program legal, responsibility to provide visas to the Afghans who risked their lives to support U.S. troops, diplomats, and civilians.
To be fair, there will be Afghans looking to game the system. As I reported in the fall of 2014 when it was unclear if U.S. forces would remain in Afghanistan after the end of that year, many Afghans who did not qualify tried to get into the SIV program. Some will try that now, which is all the more reason Congress and the State Department need to dedicate appropriate resources to properly vet applications and issue visas to deserving candidates as quickly as possible.
Failure to do so will have far reaching consequences. U.S. troops are deployed across the globe in operations to combat ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other extremists. U.S. troops will certainly face new deployments in the coming years. That requires translators and other local employees. What happens if they decide they can’t trust the United States to honor its commitments?
The United States made a plethora of promises to Afghanistan and its people over the last two decades. Unfortunately, many of those promises were unrealistic from the moment they were made and impossible to deliver. Granting visas to Afghans who risked their lives to work for the U.S. government is one promise the United States can and must honor.