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In Afghanistan, No Visas for NATO Interpreters

Afghan interpreters accompany NATO troops on dangerous missions.
Afghan interpreters accompany NATO troops on dangerous missions.
As NATO winds down its military mission in Afghanistan, many of its Afghan interpreters want to leave the country.

But they have had little success receiving immigration visas to settle in any of the 28 NATO member states. Many complain that while the United States has welcomed thousands of Afghan and Iraqi translators on its soil previously, Washington is now refusing to grant visas to hundreds of their counterparts working for NATO forces in Afghanistan.

U.S. troops make up the bulk of the NATO troops and lead its overall campaign in the country.

Shadaab Khan, who withheld his real name fearing for his security, is a 35-year-old Afghan interpreter working with NATO. He has accompanied alliance troops on dangerous combat missions and risky night raids for more than six years.

With most NATO troops scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of this year, Khan faces a dangerous and uncertain future in his country.

"We know for sure that our lives are at stake," Khan told RFE/RL's Gandhara website. "Chances are that they [Taliban] have spotted us working with NATO forces."

Khan wants to flee Afghanistan and provide a secure future for his wife and son. But NATO is not helping because it cannot issue visas to its member countries, while Washington has rejected his application for an immigration visa.

"I and fellow NATO translators were rejected when we applied for the U.S. Special Immigration Visa (SIV) program because we have contracts with NATO, not with Americans," he wrote in an online petition he signed along with 12 other Afghan interpreters working for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

"Our lives are in danger irrespective of whether we work for NATO or the Americans," he said. "We fear that the Taliban are going to harm us. For them it doesn't matter whether we work for NATO or the U.S. forces in Afghanistan."

Noor Bakhsh, who is using a pseudonym because of security concerns, is another NATO interpreter with similar concerns.

Now in his late 20s, the father of two is extremely anxious about his future after Washington rejected his immigration visa application because "there was no solid evidence to show that his life was in danger."

But Bakhsh claims that he has received death threats. "I have received many threatening telephone calls from the Taliban," he said. "They told me that they knew that I was working with the infidels."

A NATO official at its Brussels Headquarters told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that the alliance takes the issue seriously, but had no evidence that its Afghan interpreters were at "increased or specific risk due to their employment with NATO."

The official said that "NATO cannot issue visas" because granting them is at the discretion of member states and is "subject to [their] national laws and procedures."

Since 2007, Washington has issued more than 2,800 visas to Afghan and Iraqi interpreters and their dependents through the SIV program.

A U.S. State Department official told Radio Free Afghanistan that the visa program is intended for those translators who have worked directly with the U.S. Armed Forces or under Chief of Mission (COM) authority at the U.S. embassies in Baghdad and Kabul.

The official said that the U.S. Congress would need to amend laws to extend the SIV program to Iraqi and Afghan translators employed by NATO.

In Kabul Khan, Bakhsh and scores of their colleagues remain disappointed. "What is the difference between NATO and the Americans, while NATO forces mainly consist of American troops and the NATO commander for Afghanistan is an American [general]?” Khan asked.

"Because of our work we have turned into enemies of the Taliban and they won’t forgive us if they catch us," he said.

Bakhsh agreed, adding, "The Taliban will behead any interpreter they capture. All interpreters will meet this same fate."