Afghans who helped the U.S. now fear being left behind

300 interpreters have been killed since 2016

Published - May 17, 2021 09:54 pm IST - Kabul

He served as an interpreter alongside U.S. soldiers on hundreds of patrols and dozens of firefights in eastern Afghanistan, earning a glowing letter of recommendation from an American platoon commander and a medal of commendation.

Still, Ayazudin Hilal was turned down when he applied for one of the scarce special visas that would allow him to relocate to the U.S. with his family. Now, as American and NATO forces prepare to leave the country, he and thousands of others who aided the war effort fear they will be left stranded, facing the prospect of Taliban reprisals.

“We are not safe,” the 41-year-old father of six said of Afghan civilians who worked for the U.S. or NATO. “The Taliban is calling us and telling us, ’Your stepbrother is leaving the country soon, and we will kill all of you guys.’”

The fate of interpreters after the troop withdrawal is one of the looming uncertainties surrounding the pullout, including a possible resurgence of terrorist threats and a reversal of fragile gains for women if chaos, whether from competing Kabul-based warlords or the Taliban, follows the end of America’s military engagement.

Interpreters and other civilians who worked for the U.S. or NATO can get what is known as a special immigrant visa under a programme created in 2009 .

Both programmes have been dogged by complaints about a lengthy and complicated application process for security screening that grew more cumbersome with pandemic safety measures.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month that the U.S. is committed to helping interpreters and other civilians who aided the war effort, often at great personal risk. The Biden administration is reviewing the visas programmes, examining the delays and the ability of applicants to challenge a rejection.

At least 300 interpreters have been killed in Afghanistan since 2016, and the Taliban have made it clear they will continue to be targeted, said Matt Zeller, a co-founder of No One Left Behind, an organisation that advocates on behalf of the interpreters. He also served in Afghanistan as a U.S. Army officer.

“The Taliban considers them to be literally enemies of Islam,” said Mr. Zeller, now a fellow at the Truman National Security Project.

“There’s no mercy for them.”

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