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Afghan Interpreters Worry A U.S. Withdrawal Will Leave Them Behind


The United States and the Taliban signed a historic peace deal over the weekend. This agreement aims to end the longest war in American history, and it leaves Afghanistan on the edge of a new era. U.S. troops will gradually withdraw, and Afghan government officials could sit down with the Taliban for talks later this month. This is certainly a time of transition, and there are fears among Afghan interpreters who assisted U.S. military efforts, that they may be left behind. Steve Walsh with station KPBS in San Diego has the story.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Mohammad (ph) just arrived in San Diego from Kabul. He's going by his first name out of security concerns. Mohammad finally has the space to deal with mundane dad problems, like helping his young son adjust to American schools.

MOHAMMAD: He just started school the day before yesterday here. He said, like, Dad, everyone speak English. I can't. I said, no worries. You will be learning

WALSH: For nearly four years, Mohammad has been trying to get himself and his young family out of Kabul. His work as a translator for the U.S. Army made life dangerous. The Taliban visited Mohammad's home village, threatening his parents and extended family. He felt he had to leave.

MOHAMMAD: I'm safe here. The main thing is security. Security is better than everything because we save our life. We save our kids, family. We need that.

WALSH: Mohammad came to the U.S. under the Special Immigration Visa program. The latest defense bill set aside another 4,000 visas for interpreters. Supporters say it's a fraction of the number needed to clear away the backlog of at least 10,000 interpreters and their families.

MATT ZELLER: I had to look these people in the eye and say we're not going to abandon you. America doesn't do that.

WALSH: Matt Zeller co-founded the group No One Left Behind after struggling to get his own interpreter out of Afghanistan. The Army vet fears the last chapter of America's longest war will be a humanitarian tragedy.

ZELLER: If we fail to keep this promise, there's an entire generation of Vietnam veterans who will tell you that the greatest sin of their war was the abandonment of the allies that we left behind.

WALSH: The problem isn't just the number of available visas but the approval process, which typically takes years. Zeller says the process was often slow under previous administrations, but the backlog has ballooned in recent years.

ZELLER: I think it's abhorrent that the Trump administration in particular has decided that these American patriots should receive such an extreme level of vetting that it essentially renders their ability to get into the country impossible.

WALSH: The law actually requires the vetting process to take only nine months, but the backlog has continued to grow. In February following a lawsuit, a federal judge in Washington gave the administration 30 days to propose a plan to speed up the process. That deadline is this week.

ADAM BATES: Very concerned about the situation in Afghanistan.

WALSH: Adam Bates works with the International Refugee Assistance Program, the group that filed the lawsuit. He says even if the Trump administration improves the process, the fear is that time is running out if Americans aren't in Afghanistan to vet the applications.

BATES: We're especially concerned gravely at the idea of relying on the Taliban in some kind of post-agreement Afghanistan to protect Afghans who served with the U.S. mission.

WALSH: America has been in Afghanistan for nearly two decades. For those who work with U.S. forces, the work could be risky, but the dangers weren't always overt. There's a feeling that will change now that the Taliban is likely to play in a prominent role in the new Afghanistan. In the meantime, paperwork may have been lost. Some worked with private contractors, who went out of business.

MOHAMMAD: If they stop the program, some - most of the people will be lost their life.

WALSH: It's that serious.


WALSH: Mohammad just started a job in San Diego working for a small manufacturer. It's a big change from when he was still in Afghanistan when his work with U.S. forces made it hard for him to find other jobs.

MOHAMMAD: The life is going very, very, like, bad because we need money to save our life. We need everything for our kids, for everything.

WALSH: Mohammad is still in contact with other former translators back home. That includes one man in the eastern part of the country whose brother was killed by the Taliban. Mohammad said he hopes the next round of visas will be for the colleagues that he left behind.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.