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Afghan support staffers for NATO seeking a lifeline

Their work aiding foreign troops has made them and their families the targets of insurgents. But the U.S. has been slow to approve special immigrant visas.

March 01, 2013|By Alexandra Zavis and Hashmat Baktash, Los Angeles Times
  • An Afghan interpreter who adopted the American alias "Jack" while working with American forces goes over the letters of recommendation and certificates of commendation he submitted with his application for a visa to immigrate to the United States.
An Afghan interpreter who adopted the American alias "Jack"… (Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles…)

KABUL, Afghanistan — The two bullet-riddled bodies were found splayed on the road near a car. Both men — one an interpreter and the other a security guard — had worked at an international base outside Kabul.

They knew their lives were in danger, relatives said. The Taliban had threatened to kill them if they did not come up with money and stop helping NATO-led forces.

But the men were supporting large extended families.

Their recent deaths provided a chilling reminder of the dangers faced by thousands of Afghans who have served as interpreters, cultural advisors and other support staff to foreign troops and diplomats during the 11 years of war in Afghanistan.

Many have waited months, if not years, for special permission to move to the United States or other coalition countries. With the bulk of foreign forces due to depart in 2014, they fear they will be left behind.

"I'm a dead man walking," said Ghafar, an interpreter who has spent six years working with U.S. troops in Kabul, the capital, and in the dangerous eastern provinces. "I feel like I'm not living in this world. My soul is walking around."

Ghafar, 37, has accompanied U.S. forces on countless foot patrols, raids and interrogations. Along the way, suspected insurgents have called him an infidel and warned that they would come after him, threats he used to laugh off.

"I thought, 'The Taliban is over. They are history,'" he said. "'It's better to help the coalition forces to bring peace and stability.'"

Now he fears the job could cost him his life. He has no faith in the country's leaders and worries that security will collapse when foreign troops withdraw.

When he travels to and from work, Ghafar, who did not want his full name published for safety reasons, wears dark sunglasses and wraps a scarf around his face.

Despite holding down a job that has paid well at more than $900 a month, nearly four times what a soldier or policeman might earn, Ghafar long ago applied to immigrate to the United States. He said he and his wife would like to see their boys, ages 2 and two months, grow up in a safe and "more open society."

Ghafar initially applied for one of 50 "special immigrant" visas issued each year to the government's Afghan and Iraqi interpreters, but the program is oversubscribed. So he applied again through the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009, which authorized 1,500 special visas a year — up to a limit of 7,500 — for Afghans whose service to the U.S. military or government put them at risk.

In response to this second application, which Ghafar filed in 2010, the U.S. government interviewed him in January. He is waiting to hear back.

U.S. officials acknowledged that the Afghan Allies program has been slow to get off the ground. Sixty-three of the visas were issued in the last fiscal year, according to figures released by the State Department. The numbers do not include spouses or children, whose visas do not count against the annual allotment.

In all, officials said more than 2,200 Afghans, including the relatives of applicants, have been granted special visas since fiscal 2007.

U.S. officials declined to specify how many applications they have received, but said a big push was underway to clear a backlog. More than 1,000 interviews were scheduled with applicants and their families in January. Additional staff has been hired to process the applications, and the numbers of visas issued so far this year already exceeds the total for 2012, said a U.S. Embassy official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Extra screening measures introduced in response to a "credible threat" caused some delays, a State Department official said.

Two Iraqi refugees were arrested in Kentucky in 2011 on federal terrorism charges and pleaded guilty to conspiring to send weapons, cash and explosives to the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq.

"We need to protect our borders and make sure qualified people are coming through, but we want to do it as quickly as possible because these people are under threat," the embassy official said.

Afghan interpreters and advisors have helped foreign forces understand the culture and establish relationships with community leaders, officials said.

They have braved roadside bombs, ambushes and other attacks aimed at foreign troops and have also been targeted repeatedly outside their jobs. Last year, insurgents killed at least 24 Afghan civilians working for the coalition, according to NATO figures.

Grieving relatives said the interpreter and security guard slain near Kabul, both in their early 30s, were sharing a ride to work in the guard's car when Taliban gunmen caught up with them. Family members said it is dangerous for them to remain in the district, but they don't have the means to leave.

The interpreter's brother, who is caring for the man's widow and three children, said he too works for the U.S. government. The day after his brother died, he applied for a special visa.

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