Lost in translation: Taliban scare for ‘kafir’ interpreters amid US withdrawal from Afghanistan

The year was 2002. The world had changed forever. Post 9/11, Afghanistan descended further into turmoil. Mohammed Raza (name changed), a pious and loving family man, was staring at an uncertain future along with his wife. He despised the Taliban and wanted a better life for his three kids. That was when Raza got a chance to help the incoming United States troops and allied government organisations as an interpreter. Along with the US and NATO troops, Afghanistan also saw an influx of human rights and other organisations that aimed at bettering the lives of people.

While the troops pounded Taliban-controlled lands and frantically searched for then Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden — considered mastermind of 9/11 attacks, these organisations built schools and roads, and set up camps for displaced people.

Raza managed to make his way up the ladder across numerous US government organisations until 2010, during which he was also part of a group that worked for the Presidential polls of 2009 and the Parliamentary elections the following year. After Afghanistan saw a stable elected government at the helm, Raza started to work on his own as a contractor.

Fast forward to 2016, and his world changed again. There was talk of the US troops pulling out of Afghanistan. Taliban fighters were sensing an opportunity and Raza’s fears of the dark days returned. That was when he decided to apply for an SIV (Special Immigration Visa) which would help him fly out to the US. The application, along with thousands of others, was rejected.

Five years later, the world has changed even more. The Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged several countries, and a change of leadership in Washington expedited moves to bring US troops back home.

In the face of Taliban 2.0, Raza once again applied for SIV for him and his family. He has been getting mails and cryptic messages from the Taliban since 2019 accusing him of being an American spy and a “kafir” (infidel). He stops going back to his hometown (Ghazni) and holes himself up in Kabul’s urban districts. Life has become uneasy for Raza and thousands like him.

A race against time

Under Operation Allies Refuge, the first batch of 2,500 Afghans will soon arrive to the US. But for thousands of others who are still in Afghanistan, the road ahead is rough. It remains to be seen how soon the Joe Biden administration can evacuate the other Afghans who equally helped US forces and allied organisations before they are beheaded by the Taliban.

Afghanistan only has flights from the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. This is currently being protected by US and Turkish troops. But thousands of SIV-eligible Afghans are in hiding in districts outside Kabul. For them, to get out of their districts and reach the capital is a risky affair.

In the past few days, several key highways and intersections have come under Taliban control. The mission to reach Kabul has become almost impossible with the Taliban targeting Kandahar airport (Southern Afghanistan) with rockets that also damaged the runways. As a result, all flights from Kandahar to Kabul were cancelled.

The Kandahar-Kabul highway is today nicknamed the “highway of death” after a spate of attacks by the Taliban. Mercenaries have installed their own checkposts at regular intervals, and an Afghani translator was beheaded at one of these checkposts some days ago. The deceased, Sohail Pardis, had reportedly confided in his friend that he was receiving death threats from the Taliban, who’d discovered that he’d worked as a translator for the US army.

Raza, whose story we are tracking closely, spoke exclusively to India Today about the imminent threat he and his family face from the Taliban. He said, “In my personal capacity, I know hundreds of friends, co-workers, colleagues and others, who are waiting for their SIV to be approved by the Chief of Mission (known as COM) at the US Embassy in Kabul.”

According to the second quarter report of Special Immigration Visa of 2021 released in mid-July, around 11,569 applicants are waiting for COM approval.

Faran Jeffery, deputy director at ITCT (Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism), spoke exclusively to India Today. He said, “I think Afghan interpreters and others who worked for American troops have largely been ignored by the US. And, I think most part of that blame goes to the US generals who were managing the withdrawal process.”

“This issue was not on their priority list and it only got some attention after outrage by the Afghans. I think one of the main problems the US faces is that it is not sure who to airlift out of Afghanistan and who to ignore. They obviously cannot take everyone,” he opined.

On being asked about Taliban revenge on these workers, he replied, “The Taliban officially claims it won’t target interpreters and workers. But they are not a homogeneous entity. The top-level political leaders who make policies or give media statements might not entirely be in control of local commanders and fighters.”

“This has become evident in some recent cases, such as in Takhar, where the Taliban leadership disarmed some of its own commanders over alleged protocol violations, or in the case of Danish Siddiqui, whose killing made the Taliban’s top political leadership so angry that they made their spokesperson Suhail Shaheen apologise publicly and also detained a couple of their own members for interrogation.”

“So the point is even Taliban leaders cannot 100 per cent guarantee that these workers won’t be targeted. Some have already been targeted and others might be too.”

READ ALSO | Afghan official confirms Danish Siddiqui was captured and executed by Taliban

Safe havens in US, UK, Canada?

Afghan nationals (including local embassy officials), who are eligible for an escape from Kabul under the special immigration policies, have the US, the UK and Canada as the likeliest of destinations. While the US has already given asylum to thousands of Afghan nationals, their army commanders and retired generals are urging their government to process more applications at a faster rate.

There are a lot of “unfairly” rejected applications as per social outbursts of army commanders who worked with many of these applicants in Afghanistan, and the applicants themselves.

US President Joe Biden has guaranteed to speed up the special US visa process for Afghans. Around 20,000 have applied — but only about 4,000 have so far been approved, according to the State Department. Troop commanders from the UK and Canada are also echoing similar sentiments to their governments to quickly and safely evacuate the interpreters and servicemen who aided the war in Afghanistan.

“Canada is there to support those who supported us,” its immigration minister Marco Mendicino said, and added that “several thousand” people would be eligible, and the first arrivals would be landing in Canada shortly.

“We appreciate that there is a need to act quickly and decisively, but we must also do so safely given the dynamic situation. Many Afghan citizens put themselves at risk to assist Canadanow they face even greater threats from the Taliban,” he added.

A group of former military commanders in the UK has written to their prime minister saying they are “gravely concerned” about hundreds of interpreters whose applications were rejected. Those who signed the letter include four former chiefs of defence staff, two former heads of British Army, a former national security advisor, and former defence minister Johnny Mercer, who served as a soldier in Helmand.

The letter reads, “Too many of our former interpreters have unnecessarily and unreasonably been rejected We strongly urge that the policy is reviewed immediately to ensure more are given sanctuary. If any of our former interpreters are murdered by the Taliban in the wake of our withdrawal, the dishonour would lay squarely at our nation’s feet.”

Countries such as Australia, Germany and the Netherlands also have their own programmes that are smaller in scale, but they too are riddled with similar efficiency issues.

READ ALSO | Taliban accepts killing comedian Nazar Mohammad; China warns US not to interfere in internal matters; more

A chaotic process

Hundreds of applications were rejected as the applicants had their contracts cancelled on the basis of “improper conduct” or “insufficient work”. Ibrahim Soz (name changed) was working for the British forces between 2010 and 2013. His application was rejected because he was terminated, which he says was done abruptly after he failed to carry out a few tasks not originally assigned to him.

However, the fact remains that he did work for the forces for more than two years, and hence, is eligible for special protection. Ibrahim spoke exclusively to India Today, saying he feared for his life now that the troops have gone back.

“The Taliban do not care if I was fired or not The truth is we are all the same to them We are all seen as infidels and they will come after me and my family,” he said.

The Sulha Alliance, run by former British army officers, is campaigning for the rights of former Afghan interpreters. The group claims that the government only expects to relocate a maximum of 800 interpreters and their families under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP).

This is less than a third of the 3,000 plus interpreters who worked for the British army. This list also does not include other locally hired staff who were not in an “exposed role”, such as cooks and gardeners.

People criticising the efficiency of these programmes cite the messy bureaucracy as the prime reason for delays and rejections of valid applicants. The massive paperwork and tight deadlines are also a reason behind rejections and chaos. Not every region in Afghanistan has stable Internet connections.

Many interpreters and workers have already given up on the visa process and turn to smugglers to get them into mainland Europe with a fake visa. The price is as high as $20,000 per person. A few who manage to raise the money usually end up with nothing.

For others, the options are far more dangerous. These people pay smugglers to get them into Turkey. Once there, they pay an additional fee for a boat trip to Greece. From Greece, they try to sneak into Western Europe. But many never make it that far. The journey is fraught with obstacles and these refugees often get stuck along the way — broke and without official documentation.

What is needed to qualify for SIV?

A special immigrant is a person who qualifies for lawful permanent residence under one of several programmes. The Afghanistan-specific programme authorises the issuance of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to Afghan nationals who meet certain requirements and who were employed in Afghanistan:

by or on behalf of the US government in Afghanistan
by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) or a successor mission

The SIV programme requires applicants to have been employed for a minimum of two years, between October 7, 2001, and December 31, 2022.Applicants must also have experienced or be experiencing an ongoing serious threat because of their employment. Applicants must have provided faithful and valuable service to the US government, or ISAF, or a successor mission, as applicable

Applicants will have to apply separately for their families. Their spouses, as well as unmarried children younger than 21, may be granted SIVs, and may travel together or follow after the applicant has been admitted to the US.

READ ALSO | Taliban team visits China, ministry says they will play ‘important’ role in Afghan peace

The way forward

It has been reported that to accommodate more asylum seekers, the US military is preparing to house thousands of Afghan interpreters and family members at two American bases in Qatar and Kuwait.

Plans are apparently underway to build temporary housing and other facilities at Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar and Camp Buehring in Kuwait that would be designed to house the interpreters for at least 18 months. Welcome packages, containing health and comfort items and packaged meals that don’t contain pork, are being positioned at the bases, officials said.

The key concern is if the process to house these thousands of workers and their families will happen anytime soon given the delays in processing applications. Another concern is the Taliban’s priority in avenging these workers who are termed “infidels” and seen as acting in support of the “enemies of Islam”.

The final worry is the nature of the evacuation of these families. Unlike in the aftermath of the Vietnam War when the US army was able to ship out those who sought asylum, here, the only way to evacuate these people is via flights. But the progression of the Taliban in taking control of districts and targeting airstrips is a grave cause of concern to asylum-seeking families.

US army veteran Matt Zeller fought for four long years to get his interpreter to America. His interpreter Janice Shinwari saved his life literally by firing at the Taliban and getting him to a safe house. There have been many such instances and that is exactly why we are seeing the military contingent across nations fighting so hard to save these loyal workers.

People like Raza have been waiting for years to get himself and his family to safety. “Despite working for over a decade with US government organisations, I am waiting for my SIV to secure a peaceful life for me, my wife and my three children as the US will soon leave Afghanistan.”

“Frankly speaking, the interpreters and workers were the first window for American forces and contractors. We were the eyes and ears of Americans regardless of where they were stationed,” he sighs.

(The writer is a Singapore-based Open-Source Intelligence analyst)

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