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In Afghanistan, interpreters who helped U.S. in war denied visas; U.S. says they face no threat

| Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, 7:33 p.m.

KABUL — A growing number of Afghan interpreters who worked alongside American troops are being denied U.S. visas allotted by Congress because the State Department says there is no serious threat against their lives.

But the interpreters, many of whom served in Taliban havens, say U.S. officials are drastically underestimating the danger they face. Immigration attorneys and Afghan interpreters say the denials are occurring just as concerns about Taliban retribution are mounting with the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

“There are tons of Talibs in my village, and they all know that I worked with the Americans,” said one interpreter, Mohammad, who asked that his last name not be published for security reasons. “If I can't go to the States, my life is over. I swear to God, one day the Taliban will catch me.”

Taking risks for Americans

Mohammad received a U.S. form letter saying he had failed to establish that there was a “serious threat” against his life. He had explained in his application that the Taliban had spotted him on the job and spread word in his village that he was a wanted man.

In the initial phase of the visa process, “an applicant has to establish that he or she has experienced or is experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of employment by or on behalf of the U.S. government,” said Robert Hilton, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

He said the applications were examined by an embassy committee, which decided whether they should move forward to Washington.

Another interpreter who received a similar denial, and gave only his partial name, Naseri, had survived three attacks by improvised bombs on the military units he accompanied during a five-year stint. He said he explained in a visa interview at the U.S. Embassy that he'd been called a “spy and a traitor” while on patrol with his American unit and that the Taliban knew where he and his family lived. This year, he said, someone called his father and threatened to kill members of his family.

Several U.S. military officers wrote letters to the State Department about the role Naseri played.

“Every house we went into, he went into. Every firefight we went into, he went into,” said Lt. Matt Orr, who worked with Naseri in one of the most dangerous corners of eastern Afghanistan. He said he was baffled when Naseri received his denial.

Slow to help

Since the program's inception four years ago, 1,648 interpreters have received the Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, out of the 8,750 allocated by Congress.

The program has been dogged by delays and other problems. The State Department was criticized this year for temporarily revoking one interpreter's visa without explanation and for denying other applicants based on vague accusations that they were affiliated with terrorist groups.

But the most recent spate of denials could affect a broader range of interpreters. They go to the core reason the program exists — the threat to Afghan men and women who worked for the U.S. government here.

Supporters of the program in Congress expressed anger at the latest controversy to hit the program.

“I am deeply concerned about recent reports that the threat posed to interpreters by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan are being downplayed or disregarded,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, a veteran of the Afghan war, when asked for reaction. “The current process for approving visas threatens to undermine the commitment we made to stand with them.”

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