American and allied uniformed service members are not the only veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the word “veteran” might not apply legally, innumerable civilian employees of the Department of Defense, the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, other government agencies, and civilian contractors have helped carry the load. The public often overlooks their service.
All of those people, military and civilian, were able to leave the war zone at the end of their tours. But there is another group of equally dedicated public servants whose service is every bit as meritorious, who have faced a much grimmer fate: the tens of thousands of local civilians who risked their lives to serve as interpreters and other employees for American and NATO forces.
The good news is that between the time Congress expanded the Special Immigrant Visa program in 2006 to cover Iraqi and Afghan interpreters and the end of Fiscal Year 2018, more than 79,000 people—26,000 “principal applicants” and 53,000 spouses and children—have found a new life in America. I am eternally grateful for the fact that at least three of the men who worked for me during my two Afghan tours are among the 1,576 interpreters included in that number. For these brave Afghans and their families, the story has a happy ending.
For others, however, the nightmare often continued. Many applicants have fallen victim to a bureaucracy that has denied the safe haven they’ve earned. One of them is Hamid (not his real name) another of my interpreters, a man who began working for the U.S. Army in May 2002, just six months after the first U.S. “boots on the ground,” The system failed Hamid and it is failing many others.
This is a stain on our national reputation.
Prove you’re not a security risk
One of the hurdles to clear before the embassy’s chief of mission can approve a SIV applications is a security review. The foreign influence difficulties Jared Kushner has had with his security clearance process are well documented. Imagine the process for an Afghan.
Applicants often have to pass polygraph examination before they can gain approval.
A polygraph. Not to get a Top Secret security clearance.
A polygraph to get a visa.
To prove they’re not a security risk.
My first Afghan tour began in October 2002. My team and I were often the first Americans that many residents along the country’s rugged southeastern frontier ever met. Hamid and his friends rode with us on every mission, unarmed and largely unprotected. We didn’t even have body armor for them.
They were not only our language interpreters, they were our cultural interpreters. You can only learn so much about a culture second-hand prior to a deployment. Our interpreters were our bridge to the local population. They were locals themselves, who knew the lay of the land. Their service was, in a word, invaluable.
And when they went home at night, they often faced direct threats from the Taliban (and at the time I worked with Hamid, al Qaeda). In April of 2007, insurgents finally targeted Hamid with an IED, killing his brother and another interpreter. Hamid was wounded in the attack, requiring multiple surgeries. But he didn’t quit. He continued to work for USAID until he was “downsized” in 2013.
During administrative leave following the closure of his Provincial Reconstruction Team, he was told to come to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul for a polygraph… which he failed. While people prepared for his imminent arrival in Washington, the embassy revoked his SIV.
a glimmer of hope
If Hamid is a threat to American security, then so am I. He’s still living in Kabul, working on a contract for the embassy. He’s good enough to keep working for us in Afghanistan, but apparently not good enough to work for us here in the “Land of the Big PX.”
There are, however, two methods for appealing this type of rejection: an officer in Afghanistan at the rank of colonel or above can order a new polygraph, or the applicant’s supervisor at the time of denial can write an appeal on the applicant’s behalf, stating why he believes the denial to be a mistake. It is up to the State Department to decide if that recommendation mitigates any security concerns.
But these appeals are, for all appearances, rarely successful. The State Department was unable to provide the number of such appeals, let alone the number of successful ones. And Jason Gorey, executive director of No One Left Behind, a non-profit that helps interpreters through the process, didn’t have any data either. In fact, he could not immediately recall a single successful appeal of that type. He estimated that the number would be, at best, “fewer than 10.”
The State Department keeps saying the right things. “We are committed to supporting those who have helped U.S. military and other government personnel perform their duties, often at great personal risk to themselves and their families,” a State Department spokesman told me. “Everyone involved in this process, whether in Washington or at our embassies abroad, is fully aware of how much we owe our Afghan and Iraqi colleagues and the risks they face.”
It’s Not Enough
But Hamid and hundreds, if not thousands, just like him are stuck in a country that—despite billions of dollars in aid and the sacrifice of nearly 3,500 American and allied service members —is still on the long road to stability and self-sufficiency.
The Trump administration has proposed increasing the budget for processing SIV applications by $97 million over the next 10 years. And as the State Department was quick to point out, Congress approved an additional 4,000 Afghan SIVs in the spending bill that ended the government shutdown in February.
In the last four years, Congress has authorized a total of 18,500 SIVs for Afghan principal applicants. “We issued 7,234 SIVs to Afghans in [Fiscal Year] 2018, including 1,649 principal applicants,” the spokesman said.
That’s a lot. But for men like Hamid, it’s one too few.