Saturday, October 19, 2013

Shadws of Vietnam all over again: WAR IN THE MIDDLE EAST: Left Behind



U.S. Army soldiers patrol near Baraki Barak base in Afghanistan’s Logar province on Oct. 11, 2012.


BASSAM HASHEM Military in­terpreter Bassam Ha­shem, right, and Capt. Brian En­glund attend an American vs. Iraqi soc­cer game at Shaab Na­tional Stadi­um in Bagh­dad in 2009.
Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who risked everything for U.S. troops fear for their lives while hanging on to hope for a fresh start in the USA

Jabeen Bhatti
Special for USA TODAY
AMMAN , JORDAN Iraqi interpret­er Bassam Hashem was having lunch with colleagues at the Loy­alty Camp in Baghdad, a U.S. mili­tary base, when an Iraqi colonel in the federal police force turned toward them from the next table.
“ ‘We will get you when the Americans leave,’ he told us,” said Hashem, 29, noting the colonel was at the camp to receive train­ing. “And he was laughing. ‘We will get you all,’ ” he said.
Mohammad Janis Shinwari’s warning came scratched on his car. “Your judgment day is com­ing,” was the message to Shinwa­ri, 36, who said the Taliban has been looking to get him for years.
“They know I saved a U.S. in­telligence officer’s life and have killed Taliban,” he said. “They are trying hard to find me – it’s just a matter of time.”
Two countries, two conflicts and one common fate shared by thousands of Iraqis and Afghans such as Shinwari and Hashem: Because they worked with the U.S. military, they are marked men by militants.
The United States has long been aware of the danger such men put themselves in by helping the Americans. So it created a special visa for them to come to work and live in the USA once their assignment was up. Instead of receiving the visas they have been promised, they have become snared in a bureaucratic tangle that has forced them into hiding while they wait for approval.
Kirk Johnson of the group List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, said the U.S. visa system for inter­preters is a web of delays in which no one is held responsible.
The process is designed to re­ject them or make them wait,” said Johnson, author of To Be a Friend is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind . “It is as low a moment as it gets for both the Iraqis and Afghans.”
The U.S. State Department said it understands the threat faced by local hires that work for the U.S. government in both countries, but those concerns must be bal­anced with protecting national security.
“We take these threats, and the concerns of those who work with us, very seriously, and we are committed to providing them with the benefits for which they are legally eligible,” State respon­ded in an e-mailed statement. But “we need to be sure that those who wish to do us harm are not able to take advantage of the program.”
The State Department insists it has improved wait times for re­sponses to requests for the spe­cial visas. If so, critics say, it is not good enough.
Of the 25,000 visas allocated by law to Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government, fewer than 6,000 have been issued since 2008, according to Katherine Re­isner, national policy director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Pro­ject at the Urban Justice Center in New York City. Of the 8,750 available for Afghans, fewer than 1,200 have been granted.
Thousands of these Iraqi and Afghan hires deal with escalating violence in their countries while the visa process, when it works, can take upward of four years.
The program for Iraqis expired Sept. 30 but was granted a 90-day extension last week and is due to be extended again for a year. The Afghan program expires next September.
Johnson was among those who lobbied Congress to establish the special visa programs. When they became law, he said, he was thrilled that America had recog­nized an obligation to interpreters.
“I never imagined that five years later, we would be looking at the expiration of the program with so many unused visas and an even worse predicament for the Afghans,” he said. “And when you look at the number of Iraqi cases still left to process, it would take 17 years to dole out those remain­ing visas at the rate we have been g oing.”
Some members of Congress have tried to push the issue, sometimes pressuring State on particular cases, but Congress cannot overrule a process that is the authority of the State Department.
Hashem knew from the begin­ning that it would be dangerous to work with the Americans. But there was little work in Baghdad, and he lacked connections to get the few jobs available, so he de­cided to respond to the pleas from the U.S. military for help from locals.
He was hired as a translator and began working in January 2009. He worried about becoming a tar­get for the well-armed Shiite mi­litias that lurked in most Baghdad neighborhoods. He took precau­tions. He avoided the five-minute walk to his mother’s house from the camp and instead took taxis to distant parts of the city in a roundabout journey home that took three hours but would lose anyone following him.
“The local militias have their eyes on who is going in and out of the camps, fol­lowing the Iraqis that work there, kid­napping and killing some of those peo­ple,” he said. Six months after he started the job, an elderly neighbor who has regular con­tact with the Shiite militias warned his mother: “We know your son is working with the Americans — your son and your family will be killed.”
His family left for Jordan a week later. Hashem stayed be­hind and lived at the camp, where he was safe. Until April 2010, when he lost his job and needed release papers or a transfer order from the mili­tary to work at another unit. He waited for three weeks, hiding at the homes of friends until he could get out and to Jordan, where he waits for the visa he ap­plied for in March 2010.
He received a preliminary ap­proval a year later to his delight, but the visa was revoked with no explanation in late 2011.
“I was devastated,” he said. “I thought, they must have made a mistake.”
He blames the arrests in 2011 in Kentucky of two Iraqis granted refugee status who were caught trying to send weapons to insur­gents in Iraq. As a result, all Iraqi ap­plicants are under deeper scrutiny, he suspects. Johnson said he has often hectored U.S. officials at State and Homeland Se­curity about stalled visas and is told the delay is due to secu­rity concerns.
“But the truth is, when we have want­ed to help high-pri­ority refugees in the past, the only time that happens is if the American presi­dent is involved,” he said. “If he doesn’t provide cover, no bureaucrat is going to stick their neck out or act with any urgency.”
Some of the interpreters stuck their necks out for Americans, as Matt Zeller can attest.
The former CIA intelligence officer and U.S. Army captain was serving in Afghanistan in April 2008 when his unit came under attack by a group of Taliban fight­ers in Ghazni province.
Zeller said he was pinned down when Shinwari came running up from the rear, firing his AK-47. Shinwari killed two militants and saved Zeller’s life.
He said he spends a great deal of time trying to return the favor — calling members of Congress, State Department officials, the news media, everyone he can think of to pressure consular offi­cials to get Shinwari his visa.
“These people haven’t been among these people, living on the local economy. They haven’t served in combat. They don’t know what it means when some­one saves your life,” he said of State Department officials he blames for stalling Shinwari’s case. “I am honor-bound to do whatever I can to save him and his family.”
Shinwari applied for his visa in 2011, but his situation took on a new urgency after it was an­nounced that his unit would withdraw in October and the in­terpreters would lose their jobs. After months of lobbying and putting together a petition signed by more than 100,000 people, Shinwari was granted permission Sept. 8 to emigrate.
A few days later, the visa was revoked.
The State Department, which said it cannot comment by law on a specific case, said it has a right to revoke visas, “based on infor­mation that comes to light at any time.”
Zeller said that is “insane.”
“They are hiding behind rea­sons of national security, but that is an insult to the entire process. This guy had been signed off by everyone, CIA, Defense, you name it,” Zeller said.
“Afghans just shake their head and say, ‘You have put a person on the moon. How is it possible that you can’t process some pa­perwork,’ ” said Marine Lt. Col. Ty Edwards, who had been trying to get his interpreter out since 2009. Edwards was shot in the head and nearly died in 2008 af­ter an ambush by the Taliban in Kunar province. What saved him, he said, were the actions of his in­terpreter, who shielded him from gunfire.
“A lot of interpreters wouldn’t have saved my life, but he did, and we owe him,” said Edwards, 45, of Tampa, who is partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair as a result of his wounds.
After intense pressure, Ed­wards said, his interpreter finally received a call from the U.S. Em­bassy in late September to come in for processing — four years af­ter he applied for the special visa for interpreters. He got a call last week telling him he had been ap­proved.
Now he waits and hopes noth­ing goes wrong.
Retired Marine major general Jarvis Lynch, who visits Edwards weekly and has been helping to push his interpreter’s case, said it is important that Americans re­member the lessons of the past and do the right thing.
“This is what we did to the Vietnamese who had cooperated with us and did what we asked them to — we basically aban­doned (many of ) them to re-edu­cation camps and/or death,” said Lynch, who served in Vietnam. “We shouldn’t have a repeat of that grievous sin.”
Mohammad Janis Shinwari, right, with an Afghan police offi­cer, served with the U.S. military in Afghanistan for seven years. He is in hiding from the Taliban as he waits on the U.S. consulate to decide on his visa status.
Marine Lt. Col. Ty Ed­wards, right, served with an Afghan company commander in 2008 at Camp Keat­ing. Edwards says an Af­ghan inter­preter saved his life in a battle against the Taliban.

“They are hiding behind reasons of national security, but that is an insult to the entire process.”
Matt Zeller, former CIA officer