National Security & Defense

Ally Interpreters and Syrian Refugees: Obama’s Double Standard

U.S. soldiers with an interpreter patrol in Nangarhar, Afghanistan, 2010. (Kim Jae-Hwan/AFP/Getty)
The administration is ignoring clear laws on issuing visas to interpreters.

In a speech delivered shortly before Thanksgiving, President Obama called upon Americans to welcome Syrian refugees, declaring that “slamming the door in the face of refugees would betray our deepest values.” Unfortunately, that pious declaration seems not to apply to the thousands of Afghan and Iraqi allies we have effectively abandoned. If anyone is slamming the door in the faces of these refugees, it is the administration.

When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, tens of thousands of “local nationals” supported coalition efforts to rebuild their countries. These contractors worked in jobs ranging from waste disposal to construction. But it was the interpreters who arguably made the biggest contribution. Without their voices, the project of “winning hearts and minds” would have been doomed before it began.

This was not lost on America’s enemies, who dealt mercilessly with the “terps” they captured. In 2006, Iraqi death squads killed at least 21 interpreters within a three-week period, dispatching 17 in a single mass killing. The victims’ bodies were dumped in the streets of Basra as a grisly warning. The Taliban, likewise, have a policy of exterminating interpreters and others they regard as traitors. Tragically, their actions show that this is no bluster. The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and pending withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaves these friends behind, marked for death in their own countries.

Many veterans and redeployed civil servants have decried our abandonment of these people as betrayal.

Many veterans and redeployed civil servants have decried our abandonment of these people as betrayal. Our lawmakers seem to agree. In a rare bipartisan effort, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008, granting Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to 20,000 Iraqis who had served the U.S. for a year or more. Later, Congress passed the logical sequel, the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009, which granted SIVs to 7,500 Afghans over a five-year period (an amendment would later extend the timeframe to the end of 2016). Although these laws dictate that the SIV application process is not to exceed nine months, thousands of interpreters have waited for years in vain.

Department of State numbers show that an Iraqi applying for an SIV could expect to wait for 292 business days — five months longer than the congressionally mandated time frame — before hearing back. In Afghanistan, the average wait time is 417 business days — ten months beyond the legal deadline. Note that these figures exclude “applicant controlled” steps such as filling out forms and collecting the necessary paperwork. Inclusion of these steps would extend the average application time even further beyond the legal deadline.

A delayed SIV can be a death sentence. Last May, the Washington Free Beacon reported that interpreter Sakhidad Afghan, who had waited for over four years for an SIV, had been kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by the Taliban. Some, despairing of Western promises, attempt to smuggle themselves out of danger. In August, an interpreter known to British troops as Popal, whose plea for asylum in the U.K. fell on deaf ears, was captured fleeing through Iran. There he was tortured and executed.

#share#Concerns about national security provide legitimate reasons for some delay. The level of security vetting that these refugees must undergo, however, far exceeds what is reasonable. Ben Anderson of Vice News interviewed one interpreter, who had 40 letters of recommendation from American military officers with whom he had served. He was still denied an SIV. The interpreter whom I referred to as “Kemal” in a previous article is in a similar bind.

Although Kemal had an honorable eight-year career with the U.S. military, his three SIV applications were all denied. Since 2012, Kemal, his wife, and their three children have been in hiding from the Taliban, who have brutally attacked some of Kemal’s relatives. As of this writing, Kemal is contemplating giving up and attempting to smuggle his family out of the country. Robert Ham, a former Army videographer who befriended Kemal during his Afghanistan deployment, has alerted several congressmen and senators to his plight. So far, however, no one has succeeded in wresting tangible results from the Kafkaesque process.

RELATED: Needed: U.S. Visas for our Afghan Interpreters

Over the course of the last year, a handful of uninformative “We regret to inform you” letters from the Department of State and the Kabul embassy have made their way back to Ham. A typical letter, which Ham forwarded to National Review Online, mentions “the national security vetting process required by law” but is silent about the nine-month deadline also required by law. The letter acknowledges, in shamefully pedestrian language, that the long wait can “cause frustration to many individuals.” As if the prospect of death by decapitation were “frustrating” rather than terrifying.

Again shamefully, the only would-be immigrants who are subjected to this rigmarole are those whom the U.S. military and other U.S.-government agencies trusted and depended on — sometimes for years. Of the Syrian refugees whom President Obama would like to welcome into this country, how many does he think would satisfy whatever security standards Kemal supposedly falls short of? The question answers itself. If the need for security vetting is supposed to explain the unlawful delays, then it can only be because a perverse double standard against our friends and allies is built into the vetting process.

Could the crisis be blamed on insufficient funding? Only if we can believe that there are no funds within the Department of State budget.

Could the crisis be blamed on insufficient funding? Only if we can believe that there are no funds within the Department of State budget — which is about $30 billion, excluding “other international programs” — that could possibly be diverted to save the lives of our allies. If that is indeed the case, then Secretary of State John Kerry should ceaselessly agitate for Congress to provide the desperately needed funds. And this should be easy enough to do: It’s hard to imagine that anyone would vote against a bill because of a provision granting the Department of State a few million dollars specifically to address a clear emergency. Will power, not dollars, appears to be what is in deficit.

Rather than demonizing his opponents as xenophobic villains, Obama should put his own house in order and properly implement the laws Congress has already passed. He should then work with Republicans in Congress to build on existing legislation. The White House has already expressed support for increasing the number of SIVs available to Afghans by 2,000. Given the backlog that now exists, that is probably necessary. Not all Republicans will agree to this, but some can be persuaded. Unless this legislation is properly implemented, however, it will be a purely verbal victory.

The Iraqi and Afghan interpreters are being targeted because we did not make good on our promise to bring peace and security to their countries. We have a moral obligation not to let them reap the bitter fruit of our failure. Moreover, we have good prudential reasons to stand by those who have stood by us: No one wants to be the ally of a nation that abandons its allies. It’s not too late to save Kemal and others like him. But time is running out.

Spencer CaseMr. Case is a freelance writer and an international research fellow in the Wuhan University school of philosophy.

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