KABUL, Afghanistan — He served as an interpreter alongside U.S. soldiers on hundreds of patrols and dozens of firefights in eastern Afghanistan, earning a glowing letter of recommendation from an American platoon commander and a medal of commendation.
Still, Ayazudin Hilal was turned down when he applied for one of the scarce special visas that would allow him to relocate to the United States with his family. Now, as American and NATO forces prepare to leave the country, he and thousands of others who aided the war effort fear they will be left stranded, facing the prospect of Taliban reprisals.
“We are not safe,” the 41-year-old father of six said of Afghan civilians who worked for the U.S. or NATO. “The Taliban is calling us and telling us, ‘Your stepbrother is leaving the country soon, and we will kill all of you guys.'”
The fate of interpreters after the troop withdrawal is one of the looming uncertainties surrounding the pullout, including a possible resurgence of terrorist threats and a reversal of fragile gains for women if chaos, whether from competing Kabul-based warlords or the Taliban, follows the end of America’s military engagement.
Interpreters and other civilians who worked for the U.S. government or NATO can get what is known as a special immigrant visa under a program created in 2009 and modeled after a similar program for Iraqis.
Both programs have been dogged by complaints about a lengthy and complicated application process for security screening that grew more cumbersome with pandemic safety measures.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month that the U.S. is committed to helping interpreters and other Afghan civilians who aided the war effort, often at great personal risk. The Biden administration is reviewing the visas programs, examining the delays and the ability of applicants to challenge a rejection.
Former interpreters, who typically seek to shield their identities and keep a low profile, are becoming increasingly public about what they fear will happen should the Taliban return to power.
“They absolutely are going to kill us,” Mohammad Shoaib Walizada, a former interpreter for the U.S. Army, said in an interview after joining others in a protest in Kabul.
At least 300 interpreters have been killed in Afghanistan since 2016, and the Taliban have made it clear they will continue to be targeted, said Matt Zeller, a co-founder of No One Left Behind, an organization that advocates on behalf of the interpreters. He also served in Afghanistan as a U.S. Army officer.
“The Taliban considers them to be literally enemies of Islam,” said Zeller, now a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. “There’s no mercy for them.”
In December, Congress added 4,000 visas, bringing the total number of Afghans who can come with their immediate family members to 26,500, with about half the allotted amount already used and about 18,000 applications pending. The application process now typically takes more than three years.
Noah Coburn, a political anthropologist whose research focuses on Afghanistan, estimates there could be as many as 300,000 Afghan civilians who worked for the U.S. or NATO in some form over the past two decades.
Former interpreters have support in Congress, in part because many also have former American troops vouching for them.
Walizada, for example, submitted a letter of support from a U.S. Army sergeant who supervised him in dozens of patrols, including one where the interpreter was wounded by Taliban gunfire. “I cannot recall a linguist who had a greater dedication to his country or the coalition cause,” the sergeant wrote.
Walizada was initially approved for a visa, but it was later revoked. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told him that it had “adverse information you may be unaware of,” according to a letter he provided to The Associated Press. Walizada said he has appealed the decision and hasn’t received a response.
Hilal, who translated from Dari and Pashto to English for the U.S. Army from June 2009 to December 2012, was rejected by the U.S. Embassy, which said he did not meet the requirement for “faithful and valuable service,” because he was fired by the contracting firm that hired him after 3 1/2 years of service.
“If I haven’t done faithful and good service for the U.S. Army, why have they given me this medal?” he said, holding the commendation, in an interview at an office in Kabul used by the former interpreters to meet with journalists.
A November 2019 letter of support from his platoon commander was highly complimentary of “stellar” service that “rivals that of most deployed service members.”
Hilal was by the commander’s side on hundreds of patrols and dozens of firefights, monitoring enemy radio traffic and interpreting during encounters with locals, U.S. Army Maj. Thomas Goodman said in the letter.
“He was dependable and performed admirably,” Goodman wrote. “Even in firefights that lasted hours on end, he never lost his nerve, and I could always count him to be by my side.”
The special immigration visa program allows applicants to make one appeal, and many are successful. Nearly 80% of 243 Afghans who appealed in the first quarter of 2021 were subsequently approved after providing additional information, according to the State Department. Hilal said his appeal was rejected.