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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Human Rights

No One Left Behind


Fahim Muhammad believed that until the Taliban were defeated, Afghanistan, his homeland, would never be safe.1 In 2006, despite the objections of his wife and two children, Fahim dropped out of school to become a U.S. military interpreter. Because of his excellent command of English, Dari, Pashto, and the obscure Nuristani language, Fahim operated in some of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan, supporting the U.S. State Department and some of the Army’s most elite units—all despite no military training.
The cost to Fahim has been great. “The Taliban decapitated the heads of my uncle, my cousin, and my best friend, Ateeq, all because I supported the infidels,” he said in an interview from Afghanistan in December 2013.2 After receiving numerous death threats at their home in Nuristan, Fahim’s father, wife, and children fled to Kabul, the Afghan capital. “My children continue to receive death threats in Kabul. I’ve had to move my family several times since we moved here.”

In 2007, Fahim submitted visa applications for his family, requesting refugee status in the United States. Initially, the State Department told Fahim that his paperwork was “lost,” resulting in him reapplying in 2009, again in 2010, and again in 2011. In December of 2011, Fahim received a glimmer of hope; his visa status was updated to “pending.” Today, Fahim continues to go on patrols with no guarantee that his application will
be approved before U.S. troops leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014.

Men and women like Fahim are a common story in Iraq and Afghanistan. These brave but vulnerable heroes put everything at risk to assist the U.S. military in rebuilding their embattled nations. Fahim represents only one among thousands of locally hired interpreters the United States has left behind.

The United States was able to recruit these interpreters in part by making explicit promises of a path toward earning visas and naturalization. Unfortunately, today these interpreters are stuck in limbo, caught between America’s moral obligation to ensure their safety and a bureaucratic refugee vetting process meant to ensure the safety of Americans. In addition, interpreters are extremely vulnerable targets because of the valuable intelligence they may have been exposed to. Many interpreters were used in conjunction with sensitive U.S. military tactics, techniques, and procedures, which remain in our best interests to safeguard.

In December 2013, Congress reformed legislation to expedite interpreters’ visas. However, based on the extent of the problem, these reforms may have come too late. In order to protect these allies and our national security, the United States has an imperative to fix its bureaucratic backlog by prioritizing their visas over other refugee applications.


The Department of Defense never anticipated that the military would need so many interpreters. Engaging a foreign civilian population was not a necessary requirement for the vast majority of the Army before 9/11. Combat units primarily trained for one function: destroying the opposing force’s war-making capabilities.

Yet as both Iraq and Afghanistan shifted into post-invasion stability operations, the majority of combat units increasingly found themselves interfacing with the local civilian population. By 2006, as the U.S. military transitioned into General David Petraeus’s troop-intensive counterinsurgency strategy, the need for interpreters grew exponentially as all combat patrols and senior leaders needed interpreter support.3 The counterinsurgency strategy called for “winning the hearts and minds” of the local population in order to build the conditions for local governance to take root and security to improve.4 To gain the local population’s loyalty and respect, the military needed daily interaction and sustained presence.5 Communication in the local dialect became a fundamental challenge con- strained by the number of interpreters available.6

Aside from a nuanced understanding of the language itself, local interpreters brought a familiarity of the local areas. For example, Umar, an interpreter in Kunar, Afghanistan, intercepted and deciphered a Tali- ban radio communication while on patrol with Captain Carter Cheek

in 2008. Due to Umar’s knowledge of the terrain, he stopped Captain Cheek’s infantry platoon from walking directly into a waiting Taliban ambush. Instead, Cheek and his men maneuvered around the ambush and inflicted heavy losses on the approximately twenty waiting insurgents. Cheek credits Umar to this day for saving his life and the lives of his platoon.7

According to a 2011 Congressional Research Service report, at both conflict’s height of hiring, the United States employed 82,534 Iraqis—including 9,268 interpreters—and 80,725 Afghanis, with a similar proportion of interpreters as Iraq.8 These figures only represent a snapshot in time of the total amount of locals employed because there are no reliable numbers indicating how many worked across the duration of both conflicts.9 However, the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project estimates that since 2002, 50,000 Iraqi and Afghan nationals served as U.S. military interpreters.10


Aiding the U.S. military as an interpreter was never an easy decision. Many of these interpreters were embedded directly with U.S. infantry platoons patrolling villages daily. These interpreters lived, slept, and fought side by side with their American units. They wore U.S. uniforms to help them blend in with their units, but most were not allowed to carry a weapon. In the eyes of the Taliban, the interpreters were worse than the Americans, they were traitors to their own people.

The threat to an interpreter and his family was real and persistent. Many chose to wear ski masks on patrol despite the searing 130-degree heat in order to protect their identities. Interpreters were hesitant to befriend other interpreters for fear of an Al Qaeda or Taliban informant betraying them.

While on patrol in northern Iraq in 2008, my own interpreter Khalif aided in a conversation with a Sunni tribal sheik suspected
of supporting Al Qaeda insurgents. During the conversation, the sheik paused to ask Khalif where he was from but Khalif politely refused to answer his question. Despite wearing a mask to hide his identity, the sheik surprisingly knew Khalif’s family name. I sensed Khalif was frightened even as he played it off as mistaken identity. The next day Khalif quit and went into hiding. We never heard from him again.

Statistics from the Armed Forces Journal indicate that interpreters in Iraq were ten times more likely to be killed than the Americans they supported.11 The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, a nonprofit advocate group, estimates more than 1,000 interpreters were killed in Iraq alone.12 The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, another advocate group, estimates one Afghan is killed every thirty-six hours due to his or her affiliation with the United States.13


While the U.S. military did its best to minimize collateral exposure of classified information to interpreters, simply by proximity to operations, these interpreters were exposed to some of the military’s most sensitive techniques in how they find targets through signals intelligence (SIGINT) and human intelligence (HUMINT). While the military hoped interpreters never would understand the techniques and technologies used, in reality many understood.14 If interrogated, an interpreter will yield a more complete picture to adversaries of our sensitive military technologies, methods, and tactics.

Yet even unclassified information—conventional doctrine and tactics—can give our adversaries tremendously valuable intelligence. An interpreter attached to an infantry unit, accompanying them on hundreds of raids, understands the technical intricacies of combat operations. They understand the sequence of maneuvers and timing of battlefield assets like artillery and aerial support. After years on the battlefield, these interpreters understand how to fight battles as well as many soldiers do.

Alex, an interpreter serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Com- bat Team in Eastern Afghanistan, came under ambush near a town called Aranas. His platoon had ten wounded and five killed, including the platoon leader, First Lieutenant Matthew Ferrara. After Lieutenant Ferrara was killed, Alex picked up Ferrara’s radio and called in reinforcements and helicopter support.15 The Battalion Commander of 1-26 Infantry later stated, “Alex’s actions would have earned him a Silver Star if he were a U.S. soldier.”16 Alex showed combat expertise expected from seasoned American soldiers— expertise certainly valuable to the Taliban. Yet despite the heroism Alex displayed and the Americans he saved, he is currently in hiding with his family in Kabul after the Taliban killed three of his family members.

A Taliban or Al Qaeda commander could increase their ability to escape capture if they gained valuable information through capturing someone like Alex. Significant adversaries like Iran or China value the SIGINT and HUMINT knowledge that these interpreters could provide. If these interpreters are captured, we risk our effectiveness not only in current conflicts but also in future conflicts where we may attempt similar counterinsurgency or counterterrorism operations.


Based on moral obligations alone, it is hard to argue against giving sanctuary to these threatened heroes. In a rare showing of bipartisanship in Washington, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 granting the U.S. State Department the ability to issue Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to Iraqi and Afghan nationals who worked with the U.S. Armed Forces as translators or interpreters.17 The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007 granted up to 25,000 total of these visas through 2013.18 The Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009 granted 9,000 SIVs through 2014.19

According to the Washington Post, as of November 2013, only 6,000 Iraqis and 1,648 Afghanis had received their visas under these programs.20 With average wait times approaching four years, many interpreters applying for visas have no choice but to go into hiding with their families for fear of their safety. Unfortunately, according to a November 2013 interview with Becca Heller, director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, representing both Iraqis and Afghans, “For the past few months, we have been seeing an alarming number of Afghan SIV applicants denied by Embassy Kabul for allegedly ‘not facing a threat.’”21

Why does it appear that the Department of State is struggling with a bureaucratic backlog? In a February 2010 diplomatic cable obtained by the Associated Press, U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “[The SIV program] could drain [Afghanistan] of our very best civilian and military partners: our Afghan employees. . . . [The program] could have a significant deleterious impact on staffing and morale, as well as undermining our overall mission in Afghanistan.”22 Contrary to the purpose of the SIV program, and against the security interest of our Afghan allies, the Department of State had its own interest—to preserve local staffs. It even proposed changing the legal standard of “ongoing serious threat” to make it harder for interpreters to immigrate to America even after U.S. forces went home.23 The State Department lacked buy-in to the program, yet it was the one tasked with its implementation.

Ambassador Eikenberry’s argument illustrated a greater strategic problem: that by facilitating a refugee program, Iraq and Afghanistan’s future success would be attenuated by draining many of their most educated citizens. While certainly a valid concern, the reality is many experts fear that Iraq and Afghanistan may degrade into civil wars, placing the interpreter population at an increased risk of being killed.24 The moral imperative to rescue interpreters should prevail over any strategy to hold them in their country to rebuild it.

Historically, the State Department processes many other refugee cases from around the world. The 1995 revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act authorized 20,000 Cubans to receive residency to the United States annually.25 The Adjustment Act, better known as the “wet foot, dry foot policy,” stipulated that as long as Cubans made it to dry U.S. soil, they would be processed for legal permanent resident status. As an example of unequal treatment, the vetting process for Cubans is to reach U.S. soil, yet the process for Iraqis and Afghans, who have arguably done and risked more for this country than most Cubans receiving a visa under the Adjustment Act have, is comparably insurmountable.

The State Department understandably must be cautious against allowing terrorists into the United States. This danger subsequently makes them risk-averse in their vetting process. In 2009, the FBI discovered two Al Qaeda terrorists living as refugees in Bowling Green, Kentucky, who admitted to attacking U.S. soldiers in Iraq and attempt-ing to send heavy weaponry to their colleagues still in Iraq.26 As a result of this discovery, the Department of State stopped processing Iraqi refugees for six months.

Preventing terrorist infiltration is a legitimate fear, and in cases like Bowling Green, perhaps more could have been done. While a thorough vetting process is necessary, it is un- necessary to be so risk-averse that all refugee visas are stopped for six months, putting thousands of lives at risk.

Unfortunately, most interpreters have no other alternatives but to wait. The only countries willing to aid their interpreters are New Zealand and Australia, but even they are limited in their scale, accepting only 894 Afghans between the two countries.27,28 The rest of the international community will not substantially help. The British government recently stated that they would not accept a mass resettlement of Afghans who have aided their military, instead believing that a case-by-case assessment is more reasonable and proportionate. This policy has also led to a similar lengthy bureaucratic backlog preventing many interpreters from seeking refuge.


As the United States withdraws the majority of its combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the call to act is even greater.30 America’s ability to protect our interpreters will be eliminated as U.S. forces withdraw from the major Afghan population centers. The latest intelligence assessment from America’s sixteen intelligence agencies predicts a dismal future for Afghanistan.31 The Taliban are expected to regain control over much of the territory they lost and the country may descend into chaos without a long-term security agreement in place with the Karzai administration.32 There will be practically nowhere to hide as the Taliban step up a campaign to punish all those who helped the United States.

Fortunately, Congress has recently taken action to address the interpreters’ plight. On 19 December 2013, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, or H.R. 3304), which sought to re- form both the Iraqi and Afghan SIV programs.33 The NDAA emplaced new measures to include: extending the visa application deadline to September 2014; mandating that the State Department take no more than nine months to process a visa application; requiring that the State Department provide written feedback to interpreters who are denied visas; instructing the State Department to provide quarterly progress reports of the visa application process; and coordinating to provide a new position at the U.S. embassy in Iraq to oversee the visa process.34

While the NDAA reforms to the SIV programs created more time for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters, it still did not solve the problem. The NDAA only authorized a maximum of 2,500 interpreters to be processed by the 2014 deadline.35 This represents a dramatic compromise over the originally intended 34,000 visas of which only approximately 12 percent of Afghan visas and 22 percent of Iraqi visas were distributed.36 By limiting SIV visas to only 2,500 over the next year, the United States has implicitly acknowledged we will not save everyone who may be deserving of refugee status. So Congress should keep the SIV program running while there is a need for qualified applicants, not until an artificial date expires. Bowling Green illustrates that a proper vetting process is necessary; subsequently, the only solution is to properly address the backlog before the United States withdraws from Afghanistan.

The SIV is not the first time the State Department has been faced with a backlog of applications. In 2007, the State Department assigned 300 junior Foreign Service officers to help reduce backlog of a half-million American passport applications during the summer travel season.37 If the United States is willing to surge 300 staff for passport applications, is it not appropriate to do it for those at risk of death before the program closes in September 2014?

If we can bring these interpreters home, we as Americans also should welcome these new families to our communities. Military bases all have assistance centers for soldiers transi- tioning to civilian life. These facilities would provide greatly needed assistance to interpreters. It is our duty as a nation to show them thanks for what they’ve done for us by helping them settle into their new homes and jobs.

If the United States fails to rescue the thousands of interpreters in peril, the message will be clear: America does not honor its promises; if you help us, we will leave you behind
to die—a perception staining our reputation since evacuating Saigon in 1975.38 Our country owes these men and women for the service they provided, and America has valid security and intelligence interests by ensuring they are protected in the United States.

Captain William Denn is a career Army Officer and Master in Public Policy candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Prior to attending the Kennedy School, he conducted counterinsurgency and intelligence operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The views in this piece are his own.


1 All names of Afghanis and Iraqis have been changed in order to protect their identities.
2 Fahim Muhammad. Personal interview with author and Captain Carter Cheek, 14 December 2013.
3 Combat patrols typically ranged from fifteen to forty soldiers led by a lieutenant or senior noncommissioned officer. Across both Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds of patrols would occur daily. In addition to pa- trols needing interpreter support, the majority of senior military officers also had their own interpreters to support key leader engagements with senior Iraqi and Afghan political and military leaders.4 U.S. Army. FM 3-24 MCWP 3-33.5: Counterinsurgency. Department of the Army, December 2006.
5 Central to the strategy of winning hearts and minds was to move off centralized “super-bases” to small platoon and company-sized outposts among villages and town centers. The troops and their interpreter lived among the populace, forcing daily interaction and trust-building mechanisms.
6 Interpreters served a vital function that was very different from translation. Translators merely translate speech from one language to another. The role of an interpreter is to go beyond speech. Interpreters translate for and advise their counterpart in the mannerisms, cultural signals, power dynamics, customs, and nonverbal cues that are often missed by foreigners.
7 Carter Cheek. Personal interview with the author, 21 January 2014.
8 Schwartz, Moshe, and Joyprada Swain. Department of Defense Contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq: Background and Analysis. Congressional Research Service, 13 May 2011.9 Numbers are unreliable because the U.S. contractors employed to run the hiring and vetting processes would often change. Additionally, interpreters would quit employment in order to flee areas for their safety and then seek rehire in new cities.
10 Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project. Report to Supporters 2012-2013. Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.11 Darling, Paul T. “Terps to Troops.” Armed Forces Journal, 1 February 2011.
12 The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies Web site. “The Crisis.”13 Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project Web site. Special Immigrant Visas: The Urgent Need to Protect our Iraqi and Afghani Allies.14 My claim is derived through several discussions with military peers regarding operational security (OPSEC) of SIGINT and HUMINT procedures specifically referencing what interpreters understood. The majority consensus was that the U.S. military assumed great risk because interpreters (often undergraduate students with smart technical backgrounds) understood how our target- ing information was being derived. 15 Soldiers’ Angels Germany. “Well Done, We Love You.” Blog post, 9 November 2011.16 Alex. Personal interview with the author and Captain Carter Cheek, 13 December 2013.
17 H.R. 1585: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, 110th Cong. (2008) (enacted). 18 S. 1651: Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, 110th Cong. (2007) (enacted)

19 H.R. 1105: Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009, 111th Cong. (2009) (enacted).
20 Sieff, Kevin. “In Afghanistan Interpreters Who Helped U.S. in War Denied Visas; U.S. Says They Face No Threat.” Washington Post, 10 November 2013.
21  Ibid.
22  Ibid.
23  Ibid.
24  Allen, Vicki. “U.S. Intelligence Sees Big Rollbacks in Afghanistan: Report.” Reuters, 28 December 2013.
25 U.S. Department of State. U.S. State Department Refugee Admissions Program for Latin American and the Caribbean. U.S. Department of State, 6 May 2011.
26 Meek, James Gordon, Cindy Galli, and Brian Ross. “US May Have Let ‘Dozens’ of Terrorists into Country as Refugees.” ABC News, 20 November 2013.
27 Ireland, Judith, and Jonathan Swan. “Coalition to Settle Afghan Interpreters.” Sydney Morning Herald, 3 October 2013.
28 TVNZ. “More Afghan Interpreters Granted NZ Residence.” TVNZ, 18 October 2013.
29 BBC News. “Is the UK Abandoning Its Afghan Interpreters?” BBC News, 11 February 2013.
30 Starr, Barbara, and Tom Cohen. “No Bluff: U.S. Planning Possible Withdrawal of All Troops from Afghanistan.” CNN, 25 February 2014.
31 Londoño, Ernesto, Karen DeYoung, and Greg Miller. “Afghanistan Gains Will Be Lost Quickly After Drawdown, U.S. Intelligence Estimate Warns.” Washington Post, 28 December 2013.
32  Starr and Cohen, “No Bluff.”
33  H.R. 3304: National Defense Authorization Act for 2014, 113th Cong. (2014) (enacted).
34  Ibid.
35  Ibid.
36  Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, Report to Supporters 2012-2013.
37 DeYoung, Karen. “State Dept. Assigns 300 Junior Envoys to Passport Duty.” Washington Post, 4 July 2007.
38 Ignatius, David. “Will We Leave Iraqi Allies Behind?” Washington Post, 3 January 2007.