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Many Afghan interpreters risked their lives for the US — now what?

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Posted at 2:47 PM, Apr 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-28 14:47:12-04

A growing coalition of advocates is pressuring Congress and the Biden administration to not leave behind thousands of Afghan interpreters who assisted U.S. troops in the war effort but are now at risk in their home country.

Among those advocates is Janis Shinwari, who fought the Taliban shoulder-to-shoulder with American and Afghan soldiers for seven years while serving as a key bridge between the two armies.

"If there is no interpreter, how can they do this mission?" Shinwari said.

During his service, Shinwari saved the lives of five Americans and ended up on a Taliban kill list.

"The Taliban, they call whoever supported the U.S. mission a 'traitor of Islam.' They call them 'American spies,'" Shinwari saod.

In 2013, he resettled to Virginia with his family — after three years of intense vetting by the State Department. Now, Shinwari is calling on the Biden administration to do right by the translators who assisted U.S. troops.

"Those people will be tortured in front of their kids and family and they will be killed," Shinwari said. "They put their lives at risk the same way I did. And they deserve to be here."

Many American soldiers who served in Afghanistan agree. They say bringing interpreters to the U.S. as soon as possible is not only the moral thing to do, it's also in the U.S.'s own interest.

"We can't do it without them," said Daniel Elkins, the co-founder of Special Operations Association of America. "And if they don't believe that we're going to come through on our side of the bargain, they're going to be less likely and reluctant to help us."

More than 18,000 Afghans and their families are waiting for the U.S. to process their Special Immigrant Visas, a refugee program for interpreters and other civilians who were employed for at least two years by the U.S. Army or U.S. government — and face a serious threat as a result.

Applications are required to be processed in nine months, but the current wait time is around three years.

"Hundreds of these applicants have been killed while waiting for their applications to be processed," said Adam Bates, policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project.

While a group of bipartisan lawmakers is pushing to add more visas to the SIV program, Bates says Afghan allies deserve quicker and bigger solutions.

"We're thinking more along the lines of airlifts to other U.S. territories such as Guam, in order just to get people out of the country," Bates said.

As for Shinwari, he says he's been inundated with messages from distressed Afghan interpreters ever since President Joe Biden announced the imminent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

"They're not only asking, but they're begging to come here and be safe," Shinwari said.


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