Janis Shinwari with U.S. and Afghan forces at a police command post. (Courtesy of Matt Zeller)
The message recently scrawled on the hood of Janis Shinwari’s pickup was yet another reminder the Taliban wants him dead.
“They wrote the ‘Judgment Day is coming,’” Shinwari told Yahoo News by phone from Kabul.
Since 2006, Shinwari has worked as an interpreter for U.S. troops, assisting American soldiers fighting terrorists in Afghanistan. Insurgents consider Shinwari a traitor and routinely warn his family that they plan to behead him.
“Each second, each minute, each hour I feel that I am not safe,” says Shinwari, a 35-year-old married father of two young children.
With the U.S. steadily withdrawing from his homeland, Shinwari knows he needs out too. But despite applying to move to the U.S. two years ago under a special immigration program for people who helped American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, Shinwari is still waiting for an answer.
“They won’t tell us why it takes so long,” he says.
Shinwari is one of thousands of interpreters and military aides bogged down in the visa bureaucracy, according to the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, a New York-based legal services agency that helps applicants try to navigate the red tape.
“The applications just kind of get stuck from stage to stage to stage,” Katie Reisner, the nonprofit’s national policy director, told Yahoo News.
Unless lawmakers take action soon, the program for Iraqi applicants will expire at the end of September with thousands left in the pipeline. Afghans have until September 2014. In the meantime, Reisner says she worries about the mounting violence in both countries.
“Time is really of the essence for these folks,” Reisner says.
Critics fault the State Department for only approving about 22 percent of an allotted 25,000 visas from Iraq since 2008. Meanwhile, about 15 percent of 7,500 visas allotted to Afghans have been distributed.
“The agencies basically sat on it for a number of years not getting it off the ground,” Reisner says.
One measure that is up for approval would extend both programs until 2018, streamline the process and add more administrative accountability.
“Absent of adequate oversight and coordination, it’s a big mess of a process,” Reisner says.
Matt Zeller, a former Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan, says making Shinwari wait in fear is an injustice that hurts America’s credibility.
“If word gets out that the U.S. uses you and then leaves you to get killed in the withdrawal, then that’s not good,” Zeller told Yahoo News.
Zeller says Shinwari, a former English teacher, saved his life in 2008 by shooting a Taliban fighter who was closing in from behind.
“Janis jumped in my foxhole with me and had my back,” he says. “He didn’t have to do that. It wasn’t in his job description.”
Zeller and other war veterans have written Congress and the State Department to share accounts of how interpreters took up arms and helped detain combatants.
“These men and women have literally put their lives on the line,” Zeller told Yahoo News. “In my book, they’ve done more for this country than most average American citizens.”
Zeller, who communicates with Shinwari daily, says interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan have grown disheartened.
“They all think, ‘Well, you put a man on the moon. In the United States you can do anything,’” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to them. How can a country this powerful not be able to process some paperwork quickly?”
A State Department spokesperson who asked to remain anonymous said efforts are made to be timely, but that national security takes priority.
“We need to be sure that those who wish to do us harm are not able to take advantage of the program,” the official told Yahoo News.
The spokesperson said resource changes have helped get more applicants recently approved.
“Overall processing times have improved significantly in the past two years, but they’re not always predictable,” the official said. “Each case is unique.”
For now, Shinwari’s wife and children live with family in a remote village while he works on a military base with U.S. soldiers. But last month he was told his position would end when American troops vacate the camp this fall.
“He’s terrified,” Zeller says. “He knows that his salvation right now is that base. And he knows as soon as that goes away, it’s either death or the United States. There really is no other option for him.”
The State Department does not discuss specific cases and the spokesperson would only address Shinwari’s plight in general terms.
Zeller isn’t waiting around. He recently launched an online petition on Change.org. He hopes enough signatures will push the government to approve Shinwari’s visa as soon as possible.
“I consider him to be a member of my unit who is still left in Afghanistan, and we don’t leave our brothers behind,” Zeller says. “He more than earned his and his family’s tickets to a life of prosperity.”
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