‘Betrayed’: The Afghan interpreters abandoned by the US

Hundreds of Afghans who risked their lives to assist the US military with interpreting and other services have found themselves abandoned as the US pulls out of Afghanistan.

Fourth from the left, back row, Zabiullah Zyah, who worked as an interpreter for the US military in Afghanistan for less than two years between 2010 and 2012, is pictured with his a US Marines Sniper team and the Afghan National Security Forces at a checkpoint near the town of Marjah, Helmand province [Sayed Jalal Shajjan/Al Jazeera]

Kabul, Afghanistan – Ameen* remembers the summer day in early 2009 when his young children and nephews were playing in the lush green field beside the family farm in Khost province as he watched over them. He had returned from Kabul for a short visit to help his younger brother on the farm, which was struggling financially. The two men were working together close to where the children were playing.

Suddenly, a car pulled over, and one of the occupants started firing at them all with an assault rifle. Ameen says he had only a split second to drag the children to the ground and then run to get a weapon. By the time he returned with a gun, the Taliban had already left and had taken his younger brother with them.

For days afterwards, Ameen sought the help of the village elders to convince the Taliban that, while he had worked as a translator for the US army from mid-2004 to mid-2007, he was no longer doing so. But the Taliban would not accept their pleas. They wanted to make an example of those working with the “infidels”.

Twelve days later, Ameen discovered the headless corpse of his brother in front of the family farmhouse, with a note attached to his clothes: “Do not work with infidels any more.”

Afghan security personnel keep watch after attacks on government buildings in Khost province on May 12, 2009 [File: Stringer Afghanistan/Reuters]

Now, the US military is pulling out of Afghanistan and is expected to be gone by September 11 this year – the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that led to the war in Afghanistan.

They will leave behind thousands of Afghans who worked for the US military, many of whom are now in hiding because they fear reprisals for what the Taliban views as colluding with an enemy. Even now, Ameen, 45, is speaking to Al Jazeera under a false name – he cannot afford the risk to himself and his family if he is identifiable.

With a grim smile on his face, he says: “We are left on our own; the US military had to leave one day.”

‘Summer had arrived finally’

Ameen was a young boy when his father was killed during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Soon after, Ameen and his family – along with other residents of their village – fled to Pakistan to escape the violence.

Shortly after the Taliban regime was overthrown by the Americans in 2001 and a new government was established, Ameen, like millions of other refugees, returned to Afghanistan with his family. He was 25 and had spent the past 17 years living in a refugee camp in Pakistan, with only occasional visits to his village during the harvesting season.

Together with his younger brother, he resumed his studies. He took the general university exams to enter Kankor University in Khost and was elated to secure enough marks to join the course his father had wished him to study – engineering. He was excited by the prospect that he might be able to play an important role in the reconstruction of his country.

As Ameen remembers it now, the international community came in, all guns blazing, with ideas of democracy, rule of law, elections, human rights and women’s empowerment. As Afghanistan was coming out of the ruins of decades of civil war, it seemed that catching up with modernity was the only way forward. School doors were opening for both boys and girls, new roads were being built, the telephone operating system started to provide communication services.

Kabul and other large cities looked as if, “after a long and harsh winter, summer had arrived finally”, he says.

A member of the American military talks to a regional Afghan national police chief using an interpreter in 2010 in rural Dand District, just south of Kandahar, Afghanistan [File: Chris Hondros/Getty Images]

Soon Ameen started his studies at the university and, at first, the family was prospering. “Life was good, and I could earn enough money from vegetable farming to support my family and study at the same time,” he says.

But by the time his second semester began, he was struggling financially. His family was growing and so was the road network in Afghanistan.

The reconstruction of damaged road infrastructure reduced the travel time between different parts of Afghanistan, but it also brought a flood of cheap produce from neighbouring countries. Soon Afghanistan became an importing economy; leaving the small farmers struggling to sell their commodities at a competitive price. “It seemed like everyone had abandoned buying local products, as the imported ones were genetically modified – better in shape and size than home-grown products,” Ameen says.

As he finished his second university semester in early 2004, Ameen, now drowning in debt, saw that his family was barely surviving on the meagre income he could generate from farming.

Wanting to stay with his family, he resisted the temptation of moving to Kabul – the centre of employment, where young men with a little English and some computer skills could land high salaries in US dollars with international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or the US military – an income unimaginable to most Afghans at the time. Instead, he contacted his friends who were already working with the US military in his province.

An Afghan policeman talks to US marines and an Afghan interpreter on October 13, 2010, in Kajaki, Afghanistan [File: Scott Olson/Getty Images]

In mid-2004, he found himself at the gate of the well-barricaded US Military Camp Chapman in Khost province, looking for work. “When I think back now, it was the easiest of job interviews anyone would hope for. I was asked: ‘Do you speak English?’ When I replied ‘yes’, I was told, ‘Ok, tomorrow is your first day’,” he recalls.

Ameen was jubilant to have found a well-paying job in US dollars without having to leave his home. In a couple of months, he could earn what a season of harvesting would usually yield.

Shattered lives

Then, in late 2004, the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar announced an armed uprising against “America and its puppets to regain the sovereignty” of Afghanistan.

By 2005, Ameen started finding graffiti “to not cooperate with the Americans and its puppet regime”, written on the walls in his village. It was targeted at anyone who had taken positions with the US military and anyone who might be thinking of doing so.

Soon the graffiti turned to warning letters and attacks; having survived an attack by armed men on his home in 2007, his wife and children urged him to resign from his job as a translator with the US military. So much had changed for Ameen and his family since his employment had begun; his younger brother was married and had children of his own along with a job at a local school. So Ameen went back to full-time farming.

Graffiti by Taliban fighters remains on the walls of a compound used as a command centre for US marines at Musa Qala in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province [File: Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters]

By 2008, he and his brother had taken part in projects led by NGOs to help local farmers increase their productivity; meaning the family was earning enough to give them peace of mind. Finally, Ameen decided it was time to pursue his dream of becoming an engineer. To finish his studies, he moved to Kabul, leaving his wife and children behind.

Fearing for his life and the lives of his family after receiving a number of death threats, he rarely visited – until that day in early summer 2009, when his brother was taken away.

To ‘protect’ the local allies

In his book, Under Contract, Noah Coburn, a US-based political anthropologist with a focus on Afghanistan, writes that most service providers (interpreters and other workers) employed overseas by the US military have been Afghan.

“By choosing to rely on so much subcontracted labour [in Afghanistan], the US government has put tens of thousands of Afghans, who did everything from interpretation and elections monitoring to construction work, in danger,” Coburn writes.

The danger proved very real. As retribution for working with the US, a number of interpreters have been tortured and killed by the Taliban and photos of their bodies shared on social media and the Taliban website. It is hard to put a number on how many have died this way as there are no official figures. However, a non-governmental organisation, No One Left Behind, estimates that since 2014, more than 300 interpreters and their family members have been killed because of their association with the US.

Last week, the Taliban issued a statement saying it would not harm those who had previously worked for foreign forces in Afghanistan, as long as “they show remorse for their past actions and must not engage in such activities in the future that amount to treason against Islam and the country”. However, those who will be left behind after the US pulls out have little faith in this “promise” and know that they, too, may get killed.

For this reason, in 2006, the US government introduced Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to allow Afghans and Iraqis who had worked as interpreters to settle in the US. It was later expanded to include all those who provided any sort of service to the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Other NATO countries have introduced similar schemes. For example, the UK government recently announced that it plans to expedite visas for local staff, including interpreters, who worked for the UK embassy or military in Afghanistan under its Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP). But the American SIV scheme is by far the largest of such programmes.

As of June 2020, 18,471 Afghan applicants had received US visas through the SIV scheme and had emigrated to the US, along with more than 45,000 of their immediate family members. There is no official data on how many applications for SIV were turned down. Some 18,864 applicants for SIV were still being processed.

With the help of an interpreter, an Afghan army doctor talks to a member of the US army on April 5, 2014, near Pul-e Alam, Afghanistan [File: Scott Olson/Getty Images}

A report published in April this year by the Cost of War project at Brown University has shown that the SIV processing system is highly inefficient, with applications taking nearly two years to process, on average.

Many applicants go through this arduous process, only to find themselves ineligible for trivial reasons such as falling days short of the two years’ required service to be considered eligible to receive SIV, failing a polygraph test or being classed “security ineligible” for unexplained reasons. While those with USAID or in US embassy jobs were in a better position to get visas quickly, interpreters were required to obtain a recommendation letter from a senior US military official. Furthermore, during the “Muslim ban” under US President Donald Trump, the SIV process was slowed down, causing a backlog.

Some have been killed by the Taliban while waiting to get their visas. Others fall days short of the two years of “faithful service” required to meet the eligibility criteria for the visa. Those still waiting for their visa applications to be processed now fear time is running out as the US prepares to withdraw completely from Afghanistan by September.

A US soldier from the 1st Battalion 17th Infantry Regiment speaks to an Afghan policeman, centre, through an interpreter on March 6, 2010, in Kandahar, Afghanistan [File: John Moore/Getty Images]

The US government has promised to do its utmost to bring all Afghans who helped the US military in Afghanistan to the US through SIV or any other programme that it can. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley said: “There are plans being developed very, very rapidly here, for not just the interpreters but also of other people who have worked with the United States. We have a moral commitment to those who helped us.”

While the US government has said the SIV programme will continue after September, it has not given a specific timeframe for this.

Coming of age

The decision by President Obama’s administration to send more troops to Afghanistan (effectively boosting US troops by about 50 percent to 53,000) in February 2009 saw a rise in the number of Afghans being hired in service positions. For many young men who had come of age during the years of US military presence, it seemed like a good opportunity, albeit a dangerous one. For fear of reprisals, Jamil* kept his new job a secret, even from his family.

After failing the English language test twice, Jamil finally secured a job with the Americans in 2009 when he was just 19. “They never asked for a CV or any other application; language was the only skill they asked for,” says Jamil, who worked as an interpreter for the US army until 2011.

An Afghan interpreter with the US army’s 4th squadron 2d Cavalry Regiment helps to question a villager during a joint patrol with soldiers from the Afghan army on March 5, 2014, near Kandahar, Afghanistan [File: Scott Olson/Getty Images]

A week before leaving for a mission in Nuristan province in late 2010, he learned that one of his closest friends had been blown up by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) on another mission in the same province.

As the US military convoy Jamil was travelling in made its way through the rugged terrain covered with pine nut trees in Nuristan province, he was thinking about his friend, who had been due to get married the following month, when he suddenly heard a bang. The vehicle that he and his team were in was hit. “Soon after, everyone took cover and started shooting at the assailants,” says Jamil. “But I wasn’t armed at the time and just kept praying that I would make it out alive.”

Everyone survived, but Jamil’s right leg was badly injured by shrapnel and he found himself lying, helpless, in a beautiful, green valley. Unable to move or defend himself amid a heavy exchange of fire, he was hit by a bullet in the other leg.

Eventually, his colleagues found him and dragged him away. But his injuries took four months to heal – time he spent at the military camp as he feared reprisals if he returned to his village and the villagers found out about his involvement with the US military.

When he was eventually able to walk again, he went on several more missions, but then received some troubling news in November 2011. He was no longer deemed “trustworthy” by the US army. No reason was given, he says. After three years working with the Americans, he was ordered to leave the camp immediately. It was 3am. Two other Afghan colleagues had also been told to leave. Together, they requested permission to stay until dawn as there were no towns or villages close to the camp they could go to at that hour, but their request was denied.

Nowhere to hide

For weeks, Jamil lived in hiding with limited contact with the outside world. Even after his contract was terminated, he was still considered a legitimate target by the Taliban. He says he received multiple threatening phone calls from unknown numbers telling him what would happen if the Taliban found him.

As the pressure of living in hiding, finding a job and coping with the growing number of threats to his life mounted, Jamil decided to flee Afghanistan. In the summer of 2012, he flew to Iran, before crossing the border into Turkey. From there he made his way to Greece, then Denmark and finally Norway.

Jamil spent the next four years in Norway, hoping he would be granted asylum there.

“Life was good in Oslo,” he says. “I had a job and was earning well.”

But his case was rejected, and he was told: “The US army is offering interpreters the chance to live in the US; why don’t you go and apply from Kabul?”

He was deported back to Afghanistan in 2016.

Village elders speak with a US Marine through an interpreter in 2008 in the Korengal Valley of Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan [File: John Moore/Getty Images]

Jamil began the lengthy process of applying for an SIV in 2016, only to receive a rejection letter stating “lack of faithful service” in late 2020. During this time, Jamil has been teaching English at a language centre in Kabul. But he has not forgotten his service with the US military. “I have been through the same ordeal as a [member of the] US army has; I have the scars which will be with me forever; if this doesn’t prove my faithful service, then I don’t really know what will do,” he says.

“I can’t discuss this phase of my life with anyone; the phase that kept feeding my family and me is now against me,” he adds.

Unable to collect enough documented evidence to appeal the decision and prove his “faithful and valuable service” within the allotted time of 120 days after receiving the decision, Jamil reapplied for an SIV in 2021 with a new letter of recommendation from another member of the unit he worked with explaining the level of danger he faced. There is no limit set on the number of times a person can apply, as long as they have some new evidence to support their case.

“I constantly live in fear and hope; fear that any moment I could be killed and hoping I could be rescued,” Jamil reflects.

‘Burning bridges’

As soon as the Obama administration announced the first phase of withdrawal of US troops in 2011, interpreters recruited by the army began to be laid off.

By the end of 2014, the number of US military personnel had been reduced to almost 66,000 from its peak of 100,000, with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) taking overall responsibility for combat operations. US forces remained with a mission to “train, advice and assist” ANSF.

Gone with the bulk of the US military were most USAID development projects, which had helped to boost employment in the country.

Thirty-year-old Amanullah* is a father of four who lives in Uruzgan province, in the south of the country, an area under Taliban control. This is where he has spent most of his adult life working in the aviation industry which, once crippled under the former Taliban regime, had started to flourish again after 2001.

But, he says, “when the foreign troops and civilians left Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan province in 2014, the local airline, Kam Air, temporarily ceased flights and laid off many of its local employees.”

Amanullah was made redundant and found he was no longer able to support his family. After doing menial work for about three years, he opted to work with the remaining US military instead.

A group of Afghans form part of the security for the convoy of the US fact-finding mission on July 3, 2002, in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan [File: Joseph Giordono/Pool/Getty Images]

In 2015, President Obama announced that the US “combat mission” in Afghanistan was over. Unknown to most, however, the US Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alphas (ODAs) were still fighting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan – and Afghans like Amanullah were still risking their lives.

On a mission to a village near the Uruzgan provincial capital, Tarin Kowt, in October 2019, the vehicle Amanullah was travelling in was blown up by an improvised explosive device (IED), leaving him temporarily partially paralysed.

“Just after the explosion I couldn’t feel my left side, I still sometimes have pain in my left hand,” he says. Both of his lungs were punctured, and he still struggles with breathing difficulties now.

After receiving medical care for two weeks at the US military hospital at Kandahar airfield, he says, he was released from his job without any compensation and with no reason given. “It took me five months to recover, but I was paid for only one month.”

When he was fully recovered, he called the US Special Forces team he had been embedded with, but their tour was finished and they were leaving Afghanistan. His services were no longer required.

Now, Amanullah lives in fear of reprisals because of his work for the US military. He lives in hiding with his family in Kandahar, where he moved in early 2020 to escape the threats.

“How long I can survive like this? If I go out, the Taliban will kill me; if I stay home, I will starve my family to death; I have already sold my car,” he says. He moves regularly to stay safe.

He adds that his father, who lives with him in Kandahar, has been followed by men they do not know on several occasions, and was once pulled aside by strangers and questioned about his son.

Afghan interpreter Zabiullah Zyah at the US forward operation base, Marjah, Helmand. Zyah’s application for a visa to the US has been turned down even though he served just shy of two years with the US military in Afghanistan [Sayed Jalal Shajjan/Al Jazeera]

“I can’t tell the Taliban, ‘look, I worked just over a year, so don’t kill me’,” he says. But, with the eligibility criteria for SIV set at a minimum of 24 months of work, Amanullah will not qualify for the visa scheme either. People like him, he says, have found themselves in limbo and are living each day in almost total hiding. He is now considering yet another move to Kabul where, he believes, security is better than in Kandahar.

“They valued us on the field as we were a bridge between them and the Afghan community. As they are leaving, they let the bridges that once kept them connected to locals to burn,” Amanullah reflects.

Loyalty or treason?

Thirty-nine-year-old Zabiullah Zyah is one former interpreter who does not wish to conceal his identity. “If the Taliban catch me, they will kill me anyway,” he says. “That’s why I am hiding – but if I hide my identity, I will be killed without anyone knowing.”

He served the US forces in places like Marjah in Helmand province for 23 months from 2010 to 2012. He applied for an SIV in 2016, but in March 2021, his case was denied due to a “lack of faithful and valuable service”.

While his rejection cites “security ineligibility”, he believes it is really because his service fell short of the required two years by a month. He had been let go by the US military after being told he had failed one of the mandatory six-monthly security checks carried out on all locally-employed personnel. He does not know why he failed.

Zabiullah currently lives in hiding in Kabul. He also has injuries caused by an IED, which blew up when he was travelling the 130km (80 miles) stretch between Camp Leatherneck and Camp Dwyer in Helmand province in 2012. He asks: “How do I prove my loyalty? I was blown up together with the US soldiers. How can the US government even doubt my service?”

Afghan soldiers and police are briefed during a training mission at the US Marine-run Joint Sustainment Academy, Camp Leatherneck in Helmand, south of Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2012 [Heidi Vogt/AP Photo]

Zabiullah remembers his friend, Shakhidad (who only went by his first name to keep his identity protected). He served with Zabiullah in Marjah but was later killed by the Taliban on his way home to Kabul from Helmand in 2015. Shakhidad had chosen to travel in a trailer delivery truck, posing as an assistant to the truck driver in an attempt to evade detection. But the truck was pulled over by the Taliban in Farah city. Despite insisting on his false identity, he was captured, tortured and murdered.

Earlier this year, when the US and the British embassies advised their citizens not to travel to Afghanistan, Zabiullah says, “I felt a sudden chill and I believe it’s only a matter of time now before the Taliban penetrate the alleys in Kabul and start to hunt us all down.”

Far left, Zabiullah Zyah, who worked as an interpreter in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012, with US Marines sniper team in the vicinity of Marjah camp, Helmand [Sayed Jalal Shajjan/Al Jazeera]

He fears that a similar fate as that of Shakhidad may befall him.

In the eyes of the Taliban, interpreters are deemed “conspirators with the infidels” and have become legitimate targets for reprisals.

“It doesn’t matter if the US government sees us as loyal or not, we are doomed,” says Zabiullah.

The ‘Dead List’

Many of the interpreters, like Zabiullah, who spoke to Al Jazeera mentioned the “Dead List”. This is a list of individuals who have failed the six-monthly American security clearance protocol while being employed by the US military in Afghanistan. All the men interviewed for this article said they were not told why their security checks had failed.

While Zabiullah’s employment verification certificate, seen by Al Jazeera, says he served the US armed forces “with distinction”, the same US government contractor which employed him terminated his contract in 2012 and rendered him “security ineligible” – a decision that ultimately places him under suspicion.

After serving for three years as an interpreter for the US military in Afghanistan, Omid Mahmoodi, 31, is another interpreter who has found his name on this list. “I passed the security clearance every six months in the three years of my employment but failed once. I took my life in my own hand when I took up the job, but what did I get in return? I find myself in a state of permanent punishment.”

Like the others, he does not know why he failed this security check but says his sacking came at the same time that the US security forces for which he was working had started to downsize. There is no evidence that the US deliberately terminated contracts in this way in order to be released of responsibility to interpreters as it was scaling back its presence in the country. However, all those who spoke to Al Jazeera said they believed this to be the reason.

Once on the blacklist, there is no right to appeal.

The Taliban has a “dead list” of its own, not particular to interpreters, but to anyone who assisted the “puppet government” (its term for the current Afghan government which was established after the US invasion and which, it believes serves the interests of the West and is therefore illegitimate). It lists the people considered legitimate targets and who could be subject to fatal reprisals if caught.

Ameen’s life was shattered by the kidnapping and murder of his brother in 2009. He is now raising his brother’s children as well as his own and doing all he can to keep his family together. “Even though I was not working for the US military at the time, it does not matter to the Taliban; once on their kill list, one can’t do much about it.”

* Names of individuals and have been changed to protect identities.

Source: Al Jazeera