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Afghans Working With NATO-Led Forces Fear For The Future

  • Frud Bezhan

An Afghan farmer speaks with a U.S. Marine officer in Marjah in 2010.

An Afghan farmer speaks with a U.S. Marine officer in Marjah in 2010.

They have been branded "traitors" by the Taliban, which has said for years that it will kill any Afghans working for the NATO-led coalition.

With the majority of U.S. and NATO-led troops set to leave the country in 2014, many Afghans working in support positions look ahead with trepidation.

Their fears appear to be well-grounded.

Scores of Afghans working for foreign military forces have already been targeted by the Taliban. On November 14, in the latest such killing, the Taliban shot dead two Afghan interpreters working for NATO troops near Kabul. Their bodies were left next to their cars. There have been other killings and many others have received death threats warning them to quit their jobs or face a similar fate.

In response, some NATO members and their allies have created special immigration programs to help endangered Afghan workers leave Afghanistan. But many Afghans who have applied complain that they have been left in a no-man's-land after not hearing back, sometimes for years, from foreign immigration authorities.

Special Track

One U.S. initiative is called the Afghan Allies program. It was created in 2009 in a bid to boost the number of visas available to Afghan workers employed by the U.S. government. It has allocated 7,500 spaces for Afghans and their families to emigrate to the United States over five years. But so far, only 293 cases have been processed. And since 2010, only 31 cases have received the green light.

Afghans must prove there's an ongoing threat and that they worked at least one year for the U.S. government to get a visa.

A newly arrived Afghan translator after his arrival at Camp Mahafiz in central Helmand for a training program with U.S. Marines.

A newly arrived Afghan translator after his arrival at Camp Mahafiz in central Helmand for a training program with U.S. Marines.

A U.S. State Department official, who did not want to be named, acknowledged delays in processing the applications, mainly due to security concerns. "We have an obligation to ensure that recipients of Special Immigrant Visas -- like all others who enter the United States -- do not pose a threat to our security," he said. The State Department representative said the U.S. Embassy in Kabul had "redirected and increased resources to improve efficiency at all stages of the SIV process and reduce processing backlogs."

In addition to the United States, another NATO member, Canada, has a special immigration program for Afghans who worked as interpreters for Canadian soldiers and diplomats in Afghanistan. To date, the country has approved the applications of 800 Afghans and their families. Canada, which still has almost 1,000 troops in Afghanistan, has received some 6,000 immigration applications since the program began in 2009.

Meanwhile, Australia, one of the largest non-NATO contributors of troops to the Afghan mission with some 1,500 soldiers, has no special visa program. Canberra has for years mulled introducing such a scheme, but some lawmakers have questioned its viability considering the strain it would impose on overstretched immigration authorities.

Threats In The Night

One Afghan worker who has applied for a U.S. visa is Edris, a 25-year-old from Kabul.

Edris worked as an interpreter for U.S. and British troops for some 18 months in militant hotspots in eastern Afghanistan. After waiting for months for a response, Edris says he feels neglected and betrayed by his foreign employers. He says he has heard nothing since May, when he first applied, and does not know whether his application has been approved or rejected.

Edris, who does not wish to reveal his full name for security reasons, says he quit his job in May after receiving persistent death threats and witnessing the deaths of several of his Afghan colleagues.

Earlier that month he received a so-called night letter, a written threat delivered in the evening hours by the Taliban. It warned him to quit his work or he and his family would be killed. For Edris, the letter was the last straw and, after a day of deliberation, he resigned.

"As soon as the Taliban finds out [someone is an interpreter], they try to find his family," Edris says. "They tell the family, 'If I see your son going to work for the foreign forces, don't be sure he will come back home alive.' Of course, the family thinks: 'If we let our son go, they will kill him. They will kill either him or us tomorrow.'"

A Matter Of Life And Death

Afghan interpreters working for the NATO-led coalition force have been particularly susceptible to militant attacks. They are often sought out by militants, who have labeled them "spies" -- the eyes and ears of the foreign "occupiers." At least 25 interpreters have been killed in targeted attacks over the past five years, according to the Afghan government, with many more injured.

Edris says that working as an interpreter for the coalition forces is among the most dangerous jobs in the country. In the field, he says, he went to extreme lengths to blend in and hide his identity from the Taliban, who Edris says often had spies on the lookout.

"I used to wear a turban, a scarf, a hat from Kandahar [the birthplace of the Taliban], and grew my hair long so they wouldn't know I was an interpreter or a soldier," Edris says. "I couldn't carry military clothes or equipment with me. Even if I was wearing a sock from the military or a T-shirt, they would know I was with the military. [If you were caught] it was then that they would pick you up in their car, behead you, and then leave your body on the side of the road."

After quitting his job Edris received another letter. Signed "your Taliban brothers," the missive said he had "not been forgiven" for his collaboration with foreign troops.

Edris says for him and his family leaving Afghanistan has become an urgent matter of "life and death."
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to bezhanf@rferl.org

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