Almost 3,000 Afghans who loyally assisted the United States in battling al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqanis and Iran remain in legal limbo because their visa applications have apparently all been placed on hold by the State Department. According to U.S. Embassy officials the reason is that new and excessive security reviews of asylum seekers have not been completed. As a result, thousands of interpreters and their families face death threats and the risk of assassination if they remain in Afghanistan. The State Department’s tepid senior management appears seemingly unconcerned with this humanitarian crisis. It has shown no willingness to challenge security officials who are blocking the entry of these courageous allies into the United States. With no one willing to make the necessary decisions at the State Department, this disaster continues to worsen.
American troops may be suffering the consequences of the State Department’s refusal to issue any visas. It is well known in Afghanistan that the Americans are leaving and there is suspicion, fueled by such things as the visa delays, that the U.S. Government intends to abandon those who have fought with them. Afghan outrage at this apparent treachery is clearly foreseeable and that outrage may be translating into violence. Every month there are new reports of Afghan soldiers and policeman turning their weapons on U.S. troops. The latest incident occurred just this week. U.S. Embassy officials officially express shock that Afghans would betray the U.S., oblivious to their own mistreatment of loyal Afghans.
This crisis is not limited to Afghanistan but also impacts Iraqi interpreters who face similar betrayal by the State Department. On January 4, 2012, National Public Radio broadcast an analysis of the Iraqi visa scandal. Among the call-in guests was a young woman who had served in Iraq in 2004 with a U.S. Army Civil Affairs unit. She recounted that the Army had carefully screened and retained twelve interpreters for her unit. During her deployment two of her interpreters had been assassinated and the remainder lived in fear. While the Iraqis continued to support and protect the Americans, when they applied for American visas, they faced obstacle after obstacle. Retelling the story brought the woman to tears.
Retired Colonel Richard Welch told Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer that he has been trying to help an Iraqi widow and her family obtain a visa. The Iraqi woman had worked for the Americans but now was living under death threats. Colonel Welch said: “This is a beautiful family and I don’t know what I will do if they are killed while waiting for approval.”
Major General Jeffrey Buchanan told David Zucchino of The Los Angeles Times, ”If they want to come to the U.S., we should do all we can to help them. They make our country all that much better. They bring a richness, a diversity, and their patriotism is just incredible.” It is clear from these comments and many others that America sent some of its finest people to both Iraq and Afghanistan and that they are appalled by the State Department’s inaction.
Afghans can apply to enter the United States either through the “special immigrant visa” (SIV) process or with a Form I-350 “petition for special immigrant status.” According to Reuters’ Christine Kearney, 2,630 Afghans who worked for the U.S. military, State Department and USAID have applied for entry into the United States. As of late last year 48 of them had been rejected and no one had yet received a visa.
In November 2011, Reuters interviewed Alaina Teplitz, acting assistant chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Ms. Teplitz confirmed that the Embassy had, since 2001, issued 797 interpreter visas (which amounts to less than 80 per year, even though it was authorized to issue up to 1500 visas per year). She then let slip one of the real reasons for the current halt in approvals. She said cryptically, “we had to get this right.” What Ms. Teplitz neglected to tell Reuters was that U.S. domestic politics and a lack of bureaucratic integrity were responsible for the current hostility towards granting visas to Afghans. The cause was an isolated incident that occurred in May 2010 in Kentucky in which two Iraqi citizens were arrested for alleged links to al-Qaeda. These arrests petrified the State Department’s very political senior management. Even though the two Iraqis were not former interpreters, no official wanted to be responsible for allowing any Iraqi or Afghan into the United States who could possibly be linked to any U.S. adversary. Fear of making a mistake paralyzed the entire visa process, with all applications being placed on “administrative hold.” New security rules were then secretly enacted which are apparently difficult to comply with. The lesson for democracy advocates in Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Middle East is that laws are only as good as the integrity of the officials enforcing them.
State Department apologists have appeared on American television shows such as NewsHour to excuse these endless delays by arguing that they are due to a lack of resources. In fact, the State Department has more than 100,000 employees and is awash in funds. Its current plan to build a glittering $1 billion Embassy in London is testament to that. A “lack of resources” is the standard bureaucratic excuse for mismanagement. The reality is that the lack of accountability within the State Department encourages and even rewards inaction. The belief is: “Better to delay granting thousands of legitimate visa applicants, than risk one mistake.” Thus, the success of the State Department’s mission and the upholding American values takes second place to protecting senior officials from even the possibility of embarrassment.
While it is Secretary of State Clinton and her security advisors, sitting safely in Washington, D.C., who are abandoning our Afghan allies, it is U.S. military personnel stationed overseas who may be paying a deadly price for this betrayal.