America must keep its promise to Afghan translators

America must keep its promise to Afghan translators
© Getty Images

Someone needs to speak for those who spoke for our troops. 

I’m talking about the Afghan translators who provided critical support to U.S. and coalition forces during the two-decade war. These people took heroic risk in defying the Taliban, and if we withdraw our remaining forces without providing them refuge, that risk grows exponentially. Fatally.  

One former translator told the New York Times, “I get phone calls from the Taliban saying, ‘We will kill you’ — they know who I am and that I worked for the Americans.” A U.S. official deployed in Afghanistan told the American Legion that his translator “has a bounty on his head. The Taliban has no remorse. They will torture, rape and kill his kids, his wife, his mom and dad, brothers and sisters -whoever they can find - in front of him. Then they will behead him.”

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That translator is not alone. According to press reports, about 17,000 interpreters and families have applied for U.S. Special Immigration Visas (SIVs). About 10,000 continue to wait. In the last three months of the Trump administration, 1,646 Afghans were denied.

The problem is a process that has been slow and bottle-necked for years. A Department of State inspector general report last year noted that the Special Immigration Visa suffered from long delays, poor coordination and outdated technology.

Meanwhile, the climate for translators grows even more dangerous. As the U.S. drawdown reaches 50 percent, the Taliban seeks to extend its reach; pulling resources from U.S. consulates around the country means that interpreters must travel to Kabul — a difficult, dangerous and expensive trip. Then there’s the documentation necessary to receive an SIV. The next time your frustration mounts at compiling documents for your tax returns, think about what it’s like securing the necessary records in the chaos of war-ravaged Afghanistan. 

Stars and Stripes recently reported on the fate of one translator caught in this quagmire. Mohammad, a pseudonym, waited almost a decade for an SIV. During that time he received death threats, and his uncle, nephew and cousin were murdered by the Taliban. He continued to submit his documents, check on the status and wait for the protection he needed having served U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Mohammad was killed in January, and the death threats were then extended to his surviving family. (Thanks to the work of several members of Congress, his wife and children arrived in Houston last Saturday night. They were greeted by a team of veterans who volunteered to help ease the transition to America). 

I realize that applicants must be fully vetted (although they presumably were when they were hired in Afghanistan). The risk of fraudulent submissions is real. But this isn’t an intractable ideological or partisan battle; it’s a solvable bureaucratic one. 

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The State Department has said it is “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.” Which means, as it usually does, the problem requires resources — more people processing visas and accelerating the background checks on applicants and their families.  

The Biden administration has increased staff in Washington to process SIV applications, as well as a temporary increase in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. But this requires a long term, legislative solution.  

A bipartisan group of senators has introduced legislation to expand the number of visas and revise some eligibility requirements. Several House members have also led efforts on this. Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonOvernight Defense: Senate panel adds B to Biden's defense budget | House passes bill to streamline visa process for Afghans who helped US | Pentagon confirms 7 Colombians arrested in Haiti leader's killing had US training Business, labor groups teaming in high-speed rail push Here's what Congress is reading at the beach this summer MORE (D-Mass.) who served in Iraq, told me, “Today, there are tens of thousands of our Afghan partners who are at risk because we aren’t doing the paperwork fast enough to get them to safety. The United States of America is better than that, and this is our moment to prove it.”  

In a letter to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service on behalf of Muhammed’s family, Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-Texas) wrote, “[They] cannot wait for another decade for the Government to process the application. The risks are simply too high and the price they already paid is too great.”

The same risk and price looms for thousands of other translators and their families. 

Time is running out to fix this problem. We are set to withdraw the last of our forces on September 11. Leaving these translators behind isn’t just a promise broken, it’s a potential death sentence. We don’t leave our troops behind; we shouldn’t abandon those who helped keep them alive.

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.