I’ve been thinking about my friend Jamal quite frequently now that we’ve seen Iraq slip into chaos.
As our terp — short for interpreter — Jamal translated Pashto to English and back again for my small platoon of Marines in Afghanistan in 2005 and before that for a U.S. Special Forces team, and with this seemingly innocuous act he may have signed his own death warrant.
He was in his mid-thirties, I think. Handsome, well-educated, and liked within the platoon. Jamal (not his real name) was charming and understood western culture quite well; he even had an ability to talk smack and throw down an insult or two when it was warranted.
But overall, he was a good person. Steadfast in his Muslim faith, he prayed the required five times each day, never used profanity, and dutifully read his Quran. I admired him and his bravery. We all did.
We trusted him with our lives, and he in turn trusted us with his.
Watching how much Iraq has fallen apart since the U.S. pullout, however, I’m worried about what will happen to Afghanistan and people like Jamal.
How bad things could get is clear in “The Iraqi Friends We Abandoned,” a New York Times Op-Ed written by Kirk W. Johnson, a former reconstruction coordinator in Iraq, the founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, and the author of “To Be a Friend Is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind.”
Several months [after the last U.S. troops left], an Iraqi who had operated a forklift on a United States Army base was decapitated; for more than a year, he had tried desperately to get the refugee bureaucracy to process his application. I found it impossible to tell his widow and son that the Obama administration thought they should try to be less subjective in their fear.
Two and a half years since our last troops departed, perhaps 1.5 million Iraqis have been uprooted by new fighting that may shatter Iraq as a nation. Dozens of families email me with subject lines imploring: “Please Help Me,” “Need Support Please,” “Please help!!!!!!!”
As Johnson points out, the least Washington could do would be to bring more of our now-endangered allies to the safety of the U.S. It’s not as helpful as leaving troops behind to aid reconstruction — or perhaps not invading countries in the first place — but at least it would save some lives.
When these interpreters volunteered to help the U.S. military after undergoing an extensive background check, they believed they were helping their country and their family and felt safe we would protect them.
“We have already proved our honesty and loyalty to the United States,” Sardar Khan, a 26-year-old interpreter waiting for two years for a visa to come to the U.S., told the L.A. Times. “All we ask now is for the United States to return the favour.”
Instead as we pack up embassies and clean out forward operating bases, we often discard our allies along with the trash and billions in military equipment and do our best to forget about it. As Johnson points out, we did the same thing in Vietnam.
But I won’t forget. Neither will Jamal, nor will his family. I fear that if he is still alive, he’ll end up in a refugee camp, or much worse.
To be fair, many have been saved from this fate through the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa program. On its website, State says more than 9,000 Afghans — 70% of which were interpreters — have benefitted. But it’s an arduous process in itself, requiring letters of recommendation, logs of death threats they have received, many more background checks, and layers upon layers of bureaucracy.
This all as many live under fear of death, with militants even placing bounties on their heads, according to Cleveland.com.
And the numbers from a group aiding potential refugees in their applications paints a much bleaker picture. The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which also helps Afghans, told the L.A. Times in January more than 5,000 Afghan applications were in the backlog, and only 6,675 of the 25,000 visas authorised for Iraqis were issued.
There are just 3,000 visas alotted to Afghan applicants for this year, a number State believes will definitely be reached. And the program is set to expire on Sep. 30 if Congress fails to extend it.
“[Interpreters] have two options: America or die, because the people there, they think we are traitors,” Janus Shinwari, an interpreter who worked with the U.S. for seven years, told Men’s Journal.
I and a majority of Americans agree that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. So was trying to “nation build” in Afghanistan. But even if victory will prove elusive, we can still make some things right.
Honouring our promise to our terps is one of them.
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