Leave no Afghan interpreters behind
Originally published in the Military Times on Sept. 23, 2020
Washington, September 23, 2020
By Rep. Michael Waltz, Nasirulla "John" Safi and Jason Criss Howk
There are many more “Johns” from Afghanistan and Iraq that America must ensure are taken care of, with at least 9,000 waiting in the State Department system in 2020. These Afghans and Iraqis risked everything to help make their nation safer, and help America and the coalitions succeed in their missions.
These interpreters stood side-by-side with us. Together, we faced the enemy, stared down danger and worked together to put an end to global terrorism. These interpreters were our compasses, guiding us on the right path to a successful mission. Without them, American soldiers would have simply been foreigners in a faraway land. We would have been lost.
Unfortunately, the dangers of this service to their fellow Afghans and to the United States puts these interpreters in grave danger — and the danger doesn’t end once their work is over. One of the interpreters Rep. Michael Waltz worked with, Spartacus, was followed by terrorists all the way from a U.S. military base to his home. These terrorists dragged Spartacus and his family outside of their house and beheaded them for working with American forces.
Sadly, many veterans know this story too well — and the pain of this loss is great. Just as America cares for our own service members who defend our country, we must also stand by those who helped them along the way.
Ensuring those who cannot live safely yet in Afghanistan have a home is a small thank you for the sacrifices they have made. Ask a veteran who had his life saved by an Afghan what he or she thinks about the topic — I am going to bet it sounds a lot like this.
John joined the U.S. operation against terrorists in 2009. He was actually around 15 years old, but didn’t let the Americans know. He was one of thousands of both Afghan and Afghan-Americans who were employed by a company called Mission Essential Personnel (MEP) to support Operation Enduring Freedom.
Like many others, John knew nothing of, or ever thought about, the risks and dangers he would face becoming an interpreter/cultural adviser; he was not a soldier, just a boy who wanted to make his nation safe for his family. John started his combat tours with C Company, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division. They were operating out of Combat Outpost Monti in one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous areas, located deep in the Hindu Kush Mountains in eastern Afghanistan. Safi would operate in this area with numerous infantry units for many years including: 1-32 Charlie Company, (January to December 2009), 2nd PLT, Battle Company, 2-503d INF, 173d ABN BDE (December 2009 to May 2010), Alpha Company, Task Force No Slack, 1st Brigade, Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, (May 2010 to April 2011), and Bravo Company, 2nd battalion, 27th Infantry regiment, (April 2011 to June 2011). After a transfer to work in Jalalabad, John went back to COP Monti in July 2012 to support Bravo Battery, 2nd Battalion, 77th Field Artillery, 4th Infantry Brigade, 4th Infantry Division in order to train Afghan National Army soldiers, (July 2012 to September 2012). During all of these assignments, John was receiving daily death threats from the Taliban for helping the Americans.
John calls it an honor to have worked with and support American soldiers on daily patrols/missions against terrorists in Afghanistan over those many years. He had the opportunity to meet some incredible men like Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Devine and Sgt. 1st Class Pat Flanagan. He didn’t just support them on their daily patrols/missions, John also helped them understand Afghan culture and traditions, which was a very sensitive matter. Afghanistan has a complex culture; therefore, it changes areas to areas and depends what part of the country you are from. Both Kevin Devine and Pat Flanagan were more than John’s bosses, he learned much from them about American culture and importantly their thousands of combat and non-combat experiences. John is proud to call them his brothers, and Pat and Kevin feel the same way.
John was almost killed or seriously wounded many times in firefights and during Taliban attacks on his outposts, just like the rest of the other interpreters who still support American soldiers and their allies on daily patrols/missions. Most of them hoped that one day, they will make it out to a safe nation with their families due to ongoing danger and threats against their family, as well. However, the bureaucratic system has made thousands of translator/cultural advisers who aided the U.S. government feel left behind — and that goes against what U.S. soldiers and Marines taught these Afghans was morally right.
John applied for a U.S visa in March 2011 under Section 602(b) of the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009, which authorizes the issuance of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to Afghan nationals who meet certain requirements. His interview was scheduled at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in October 2012. It took four years and the submission of dozens of letters from U.S. military officers, including a four-star general, just to get his visa. John hoped that he would be able to get his family to safety within months of the interview’s completion, but the whole paperwork process was stalled for years.
During over four years of bureaucratic limbo, John could not find out why his visa was stuck while he was regularly receiving death threats, losing family members, and even surviving an assassination attempt.
John held on to the hope that he could make an American dream come true one day, just like thousands of others still waiting right now. The security situation was worsening when he had his interview scheduled in 2012. John was beyond happy and began preparing to leave the country; but weeks turned into a four-year-long wait before he received his visa in 2016. That four-year struggle involved dozens of emails back and forth and the support of some very senior current and former military officials.
In 2016, John left Afghanistan to begin his American dream, but left his family behind due to the rules of the system. Just as importantly, he left behind some incredible combat brothers who risked their lives to support U.S. personnel both in combat and non-combat operations.
Some of John’s friends were not lucky enough to survive. His friend, Rahim, who worked for Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer’s embedded training team, died along with a brave Marine during the battle of Gonjgal in 2009. Samsoor died when his CH-47 Chinook helicopter was downed by a Taliban RPG in 2011, and Esmatullah, whose nickname was “Killer,” died during an operation against the Taliban a couple months later. Esmatullah was newly married and had a baby on the way; but his baby never saw his father, nor did anyone help his family. These Afghan and American heroes were all buried without proper funeral ceremonies because the Taliban threatened to target whoever attended their funerals.
Legislation passed by Congress in 2019 was supposed to provide a pathway and more visas — 4,500 of them — for Afghan interpreters who served alongside American soldiers, lost family members, and were injured. In Congress, we’ve put forth bills to keep our promises, like the Afghan Allies Protection Act, which would authorize another 4,000 visas for these interpreters.
In Rep. Waltz’s own office, SIV requests are an all-hands-on-deck operation. Each staff member, regardless of their specialty, has at least some familiarity with these interpreters' stories. Though Rep. Waltz’s service in Afghanistan ended many years ago, his office still receives outreach from Afghans asking for help. The risk is ongoing.
Many are now living in hiding from the constant threats from the Taliban. Because the visas have been drastically reduced for Afghan interpreters/cultural advisers, many of them don’t know whether their luck will lead them to new opportunities and the American dream, or keep them trapped and feeling left behind.
John served alongside some incredible people who spent more than a decade supporting U.S. missions in Afghanistan. Two of those brave men were Irfan and Aziz. Irfan became an interpreter/cultural adviser for the American soldiers in 2005, and fought shoulder-to-shoulder with American soldiers in the most dangerous places in the country, such as Korangal Valley, known as the “Valley of Death.” Irfan applied for the Special Immigrant Visa long before John, but was left behind in dangerous, life-and-death situations. He was scheduled for an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul four times, but each time he was refused a U.S. visa that he truly deserved. He now lives in a hideout due to constant threats from the Taliban and even some of his villagers. Irfan’s wife made it to the United States through a program called the Diversity Immigrant Visa, or lottery visa program, which had nothing to do with her husband and his work for the American soldiers. She lives in Idaho, fighting for her husband to join her on U.S. soil one day.
Aziz became an interpreter/cultural adviser for American soldiers in 2010 and supported U.S. led operations against the Taliban and other insurgents deep in the Hindu Kush Mountains, where he took part in more than 100 mounted and dismounted patrols, and air assault missions and operations such as Strong Eagle Three. He received minor injuries when their patrol came under Taliban’s attack in Dangam District, Kunar Province in 2011, but luckily, he survived. Aziz was awarded with many commendation letters by military officers and NCOs for his effort, tireless work commitment, and love both for Afghanistan and the U.S. Despite the mental strain and regular death threats from the Taliban, Aziz wanted to do something better for his country and his family so they could have a future without fear and Taliban threats in the United States one day. But the American dream for him and his kids slipped away when he was told that he couldn’t get his visa for unspecific security reasons after serving American soldiers for years. There are thousands of interpreters/cultural advisers who are still in great danger and still live moment to moment hoping to survive.
Today, there is a possible political settlement to end the decades-long war between the Taliban and the Afghan government, but the biggest threat, ISKP and other terrorist groups still remain. These terrorist groups can, and likely will, hunt down those great Afghan men and their families who served the U.S missions.
Those brave men assisted and aided American soldiers in Afghanistan and saved many lives by putting their own lives at risk, and they are at even greater risk if they remain in Afghanistan. There is a moral obligation for the United States to uphold the wishes of the soldiers who served beside these brave Afghans and give these men the opportunity to begin new lives in America for their dedicated support during Operation Enduring Freedom.
Today, John is working full-time and going to school part-time pursuing a career in health care with hopes of becoming a doctor. While he may never be safe in Afghanistan, John says he would like to visit his family and friends if peace takes hold and he can safely travel there. But John is also happy when he visits with his newer family members. After living with one of his American sergeants for two years, John has his own place now and loves to see his old comrades-in-arms when he has free time. These life-long friendships with Americans were forged in the heat of battle and in many ways, they are his closest family now. John works for an Afghan, who lives about two hours away. Since leaving his home country, John has never lived with any Afghan family.
John will formally apply for U.S. citizenship in January 2021 after his required wait time ends. Then he will be scheduled for an interview and citizenship test, and one day his oath ceremony, where he will get to affirm for the hundredth time that he believes in the United States and freedom.
Authors note: Two American soldiers who worked directly with John in Afghanistan, and even let him live in their homes in America when he arrived, aided in the writing of this commentary. Retired Sgt. 1st Class Pat Flanagan and retired Sgt. Maj. Kevin Devine. Jason, Pat, and Kevin all served in the infantry together in the 1990s. Kevin and Pat served well over a dozen years collectively in America’s combat zones after September 11th.