Dreaming of America, Fearing Taliban Takeover: As US Withdraws, Afghan Interpreter Waits for Visa

An Afghan soldier listens to an interpreter
An Afghan soldier listens to an interpreter as she explains how to take care of his prosthetic eye while at the Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, Aug. 7, 2014. (U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Cohen A. Young)

As a teenager in Kabul, Afghanistan, Said loved to watch American movies -- mostly love stories.

His all-time favorite was "Titanic," though he also was hooked on Tom Cruise movies. And as he watched these films over and over, with the subtitles on, he picked up more and more English.

Said's newfound language skills, bolstered through training courses and by studying books on his own, opened up a new opportunity to him. In August 2006, while still a teenager, he began translating for the U.S. military at the Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram Airfield. He held that job for six years.

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But now, with Bagram vacated and the U.S. military on the verge of completely pulling out of Afghanistan, Said watches the Taliban advance throughout the country and wonders when -- and if -- he and his family can make it to safety in America. He fears time is running out as the Pentagon says U.S. troops will be out by the end of August.

"The security situation is getting worse and worse, day by day," Said said during a July 2 interview with Military.com over WhatsApp. He asked to be identified only by that name and described as in his early 30s, requesting that further details about him not be printed for his safety given the worsening security situation in Afghanistan.

"The threats are getting close to us ... and getting very much closer," he said.

Said is one of roughly 18,000 Afghans who assisted the United States over the last 20 years by serving as interpreters, drivers, security guards and in other jobs and have applied for a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, only to spend years -- typically at least three -- waiting for the slow, bureaucratic process to run its course. Said's two attempts at obtaining a visa have taken far longer, beginning more than a dozen years ago in 2008.

No One Left Behind, one of the groups seeking to help Afghans who worked for the U.S. with their visas, said more than 300 interpreters or their family members have been killed since 2014. Some have been kidnapped and tortured before being brutally murdered. Afghans report receiving "Night Letters" from the Taliban threatening them or their families, or verbal threats -- sometimes indirect or ambiguous -- from Taliban-connected neighbors.

Advocates for Afghans who worked for the United States and now need visas, including prominent lawmakers, are increasingly sounding the alarm about the SIV program's dismal track record and the danger facing tens of thousands of Afghan allies and their families if the Afghan government can't protect them after the impending U.S. withdrawal.

"I want the White House's hair on fire" over the need to ensure Afghans' safety, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, told reporters last month. "The time is short, and getting shorter all the time."

Some, including King, have urged the government to evacuate Afghans to locations outside of Afghanistan, such as Guam, where they can safely stay while their visas are processed. The White House finally acknowledged last month that it has a plan to evacuate Afghans to an unidentified third country. Reuters reported last week that the administration is negotiating with nearby Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to temporarily house the Afghans, but that an agreement was not near. Said said he's been told nothing about what is in the works.

For now, he can do little more than wait and worry in Kabul.

He said he hasn't experienced an increase in people making direct threats to him, but he still feels increasingly endangered. Many of Said's neighbors are Pashtuns, the same ethnic group as many members of the Taliban, while Said is a Tajik. And as he watches reports of the Taliban's rapid advance throughout Afghanistan, overwhelming the Afghan army, he fears that some of his Pashtun neighbors may join or assist them if the militant group reaches Kabul.

If those neighbors tell the Taliban how he helped the Americans, he said, his life -- and the lives of his family -- could be in great danger.

"They know us," Said said. "They knew us from the beginning, [that] I used to work [for the U.S. military]. That's a very direct threat. I'm feeling very, very vulnerable about the Taliban."

Ethnic divisions have long plagued Afghanistan, which has more than a dozen different groups, and intensified during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s as resistance factions sometimes organized along ethnic lines. Those divisions erupted into a ruinous civil war during the 1990s that resulted in the predominantly Pashtun Taliban taking power.

Military.com was introduced to Said through an advocacy organization trying to help Afghans obtain visas. One of the organization’s board members worked with him at Bagram. She confirmed his status as an interpreter and details of his past work, saying he speaks five languages and received an award for being the top interpreter at the hospital in 2008.

At the Bagram hospital, Said would translate for patients being seen by English-speaking doctors -- local nationals, Afghan army soldiers, and sometimes even wounded insurgents.

He loved his job, he said, even though it could sometimes be frustrating and risky, such as when he had to translate for detainees. He particularly liked working with U.S. airmen, whom he found to be polite and professional.

"The Air Force is the special part of the United States military," he said.

Said first spoke with Military.com on the same day news broke about the U.S.'s quiet nighttime withdrawal from Bagram.

He described his years working at Bagram in almost idyllic terms, as if it were a haven from the wartime chaos raging outside.

"I really miss the place I used to work," Said said. "The enjoyment, the different types of ... multinational people working there, as friendly as brothers and sisters there. You would feel safe when you get into the base."

Kristen Babicki, a former Air Force medic who worked with Said for about seven months in 2009, said he was a great interpreter. She described him as intelligent, hardworking and polite, but also as someone with a "fun personality" who shared interesting stories with the Americans about Afghan culture during their downtime. She confirmed that Gen. James McConville, now the Army's chief of staff, wrote a letter of recommendation for him when he applied years ago, among others.

Babicki now works with the group Association of Wartime Allies, which advocates for Afghan interpreters and others who assisted the U.S. government, and has been trying to help Said with his visa for two and a half years.

Said regularly received verbal threats in those days from other Afghans. There were times when someone recognized him while riding on public transportation, or realized he was headed for Bagram and told him he shouldn't be working with the Americans. On those occasions, Said would get out and catch another ride, just to be safe.

On one occasion, a stranger in Helmand province accused him of being an American spy because he saw Said leaving a base. At the time, Said was working for an American contractor helping enroll and drug test police. When asked whether that stranger threatened his life, Said replied, "Of course."

He has an infant daughter, his first child, on whom he dotes. He texted multiple photos of his daughter with her beaming smile, overlaid with pink heart and flower emojis, to underscore how important it is for him to receive his visa.

"I have family," Said texted. "I served the U.S. government honestly. I deserve to be given the chance to save [their lives]."

Said was laid off from his job in 2012 because the hospital had more interpreters than it needed, and not due to poor performance, he said.

But he said confusion over that layoff scuttled his first attempt at a Special Immigrant Visa, which began in late 2008. He heard practically nothing for years, until his application was returned in 2015 and officially rejected in 2020. He said his application was rejected because they mistakenly believed, due to a clerical error, that his employment as an interpreter had been terminated for poor performance. Said insists he was not fired for poor performance, but was laid off because there weren't enough slots for him.

Babicki said that's a common mistake that derails many visa applications, and correcting those errors years after the fact is difficult if not impossible.

With his first visa application appearing doomed, Said started a second attempt under a different section of the interpreter visa program. He had his interview in June 2016, and hoped he was on his way.

But since then, Said has been waiting. And waiting. And still waiting, for five years now. Every two or three months, he gets an email telling him that his case is still in administrative processing, awaiting verification.

"That's the only answer" they send, Said said.

He said staffers from the office of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., have also been trying to help, but they receive similar responses when they ask about his case.

Said hopes to move his family to San Diego once his visa application finally comes through. Most of his friends who have already come to America settled in California and tell him the warm climate there will remind him of Afghanistan.

When he envisions his future life in America -- which he describes without a hint of irony as the "land of opportunity" -- Said imagines the possibilities. He might start by working in a bank or an Apple store. Or he could start his own business in San Diego selling cell phones.

And then, his dreams grow bigger. He wants to go back to school and get a law degree, maybe eventually becoming a defense attorney.

But before any of that can happen, Said has to get his visa and get his family out of Kabul. So he pulls out his phone, checks the news about the latest Taliban advances for the 10th time, and hopes tomorrow will finally be the day he gets called to the U.S. Embassy.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to a step in the visa application process.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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