U.S. does about-face on Afghan War ally's visa status

Jason Sickles, Yahoo
Yahoo News

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The Shinwari family were granted visas only to be told they were being put on hold two weeks later. (Courtesy Janis …

Is the Taliban trying to sabotage Afghan War ally Janis Shinwari’s escape to the United States?

Earlier this month, Shinwari, who served as an interpreter for U.S. military forces in Afghanistan for nearly seven years, learned the State Department had finally granted him and his family visas after a two-year application process and background check.

But 14 days later the Shinwaris’ request to seek refuge in the U.S. was put on hold again. As of Tuesday, the visa status of Shinwari, his wife and their two young children remained in “administrative review.”

“From time to time, after a visa has been issued, new information will become available indicating that a person who has been issued a visa may not in fact be eligible for that visa,” a State Department official wrote in an email to Matt Zeller, a former Army captain who has been aggressively lobbying for Shinwari’s clearance.

“Because the issuance of a visa is also a national security decision, consular officers examine every case closely to ensure that only someone who is legally entitled to a visa is granted one,” the official wrote, adding that case details could not be provided for legal reasons.

Zeller, a former CIA and military intelligence officer, told Yahoo News he believes a slanderous anonymous tip by the Taliban is the source of the government’s about-face.

“They used to call our U.S. Army base all the time in Afghanistan claiming all sorts of lies about our interpreters in an attempt to get us to fire them, ” Zeller wrote in an email to the State Department.

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Matt Zeller and Janis Shinwari in 2008 (Courtesy photo)

Zeller faults U.S. counterintelligence agencies for not vetting the validity of the information.

“They’ve known about him for years,” he says. “Total knee-jerk. That’s just dumb.”

Shinwari, who says he is on a Taliban hit list for helping U.S. forces, says he also wouldn’t put it past insurgents to try and interrupt his plans.

“Maybe someone lied to embassy or send a message against me,” Shinwari wrote in an email to Yahoo News. “If I lose my visa then it means me and my family are the future Taliban target.”

Shinwari’s visa gave him until Nov. 22 to move. He quit his job on a U.S. military base, sold his possessions and was getting his affairs in order when he was notified of the status change.

“How can I be a threat to the United States?” he wrote. “I have been working as an armed interpreter with U.S. Army for almost seven years and I was protecting the Americans in my country. I was fighting against the Taliban. If I am a bad guy, how can I spend seven years with the armies? Is this possible?”

Shinwari, a 35-year-old former English teacher, applied for his visa under a special program for people who aided American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the special immigrant visa program designated to help interpreters and other allies from the Iraq War is slated to expire at the end of September unless lawmakers pass an extension. The Afghan version would go away in September 2014 without a new law.

Humanitarians and war vets have been critical of the effort, saying that only a fraction of potentially eligible candidates have been approved in what they argue is a badly bureaucratic process. Thousands of applications from U.S. allies are believed to be in limbo.

More than 100,000 people signed an online petition Zeller started in late August to escalate attention for Shinwari’s visa approval. Four similar campaigns for other war allies have since been launched on Change.org.

Zeller, who claims Shinwari saved his life by killing an encroaching insurgent during battle in 2008, says he doesn’t find an 11th-hour red flag plausible.

“I’m not going to sit around and take their explanation that, ‘Oh, something came up at the last minute,’” Zeller says. “He did everything they told him to do. His only hope is the promise we made to get him out of there.”

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