Backstory: Afghan Interpreters’ Search for Safety

By May Treuhaft-Ali, Literary Fellow
January 21, 2020

A U.S. soldier and an Afghan interpreter at their base in Laghman province. Lucas Jackson, Reuters, 2019.

In Selling Kabul, a former United States interpreter named Taroon recalls how he and his wife used to dream about “Kabul in ten years.” Taroon signed up to interpret for the US army because he had hoped the US occupation would lead to the peaceful future that he and his wife had envisioned. When the US arrived in October 2001, Afghanistan had already endured decades of conflict as a Soviet pawn and five years of repressive Taliban control. To men and women like Taroon, the arrival of Western forces signified that the international community had finally noticed their plight, and was ready to intervene. According to interviews that Ben Anderson conducted for Vice News in 2014, many Afghan interpreters enlisted not because they expected visas, or because they were paid particularly well, but because they believed that the US would remove the Taliban from power once and for all. Had they foreseen how the war would actually unfold, all of Anderson’s interviewees say, they never would have signed up in the first place. 

According to Azam Ahmed’s 2013 New York Times reporting, over 8,000 Afghans served as interpreters and translators for the US throughout the war. While American soldiers’ deployments lasted six to 12 months, most interpreters served for years, and many served for over a decade. They worked in the most dangerous combat zones alongside American soldiers, and their services were integral to the troops’ safety. They formed deep bonds with soldiers, and saved their lives on countless occasions. Now, however, as more and more troops withdraw, these individuals find themselves stranded without income or protection. The Taliban regularly retaliates against Afghans who assist its opponents, and in 2014, the International Refugee Assistance Project estimated that the Taliban murdered an interpreter who worked with US forces every 36 hours.

“Taroon’s precarious living situation is all too common: thousands of interpreters live in exile, unable to leave their houses or see their families, and ostracized by a society that views them as traitors.”

The pervasive fear and isolation that surround interpreters are at the heart of Sylvia Khoury’s play. Taroon lives in hiding at his sister Afiya’s house, and though his wife has just given birth to a son, he cannot see them. The Taliban frequently attacks interpreters’ families, and Taroon knows that if he is discovered with his wife and child, their lives will all be in danger. Taroon’s precarious living situation is all too common: thousands of interpreters live in exile, unable to leave their houses or see their families, and ostracized by a society that views them as traitors. 

In response to the danger that interpreters face, Congress approved 7,500 Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for interpreters to emigrate to the US between 2010 and 2012. Obtaining an SIV is virtually an interpreter’s only hope of reaching safety. Taroon has already applied for a SIV when we meet him, and eagerly awaits a response from the American embassy. Unbeknownst to him, the majority of applications remain unanswered. In April 2013, when Selling Kabul is set, the State Department had only granted 12% of the available SIVs.  The program has since extended and expanded — 2,300 were granted between October 2013 and June 2014 alone, and 18,500 additional visas have been allocated between 2014 and 2019 — but even so, only a small fraction of eligible applicants have been successful in acquiring visas. The process is arduous, opaque, and often prohibitively expensive. Applicants must assemble a dossier of identification papers, recommendation letters from American supervisors, letters from the US embassy, medical certificates, and photos that prove they worked with the US army. The medical certificates alone cost $1,500, and they expire every six months, so interpreters must pay this fee repeatedly to renew them. Once these materials have been submitted, applicants undergo several years of security checks. For applicants facing immediate threat or requiring medical services unavailable in Afghanistan, a visa simply won’t come in time to make a difference, if it even comes at all.

For many, the most nebulous and unjust part of the SIV application process is proving that they provided “faithful and valuable service” to the US and have incurred “serious and ongoing” threats to their safety as a result of their service. In order to prove that their service was “faithful and valuable,” applicants must take polygraph tests, language proficiency tests, and counterintelligence tests. Yet in addition to being unreliable, polygraph tests are not recognized by the US government as a valid procedure, and interpreters often fail the other two tests for arbitrary and inscrutable reasons. For example, the International Refugee Assistance Project worked with one interpreter who had saved the lives of six US soldiers, and goes by the pseudonym “Mark” to protect his family. He was required to take a language proficiency test in order to receive his visa, though he had already taken it before and passed. This time, however, the test was administered by a man from his province who failed him because their families were local rivals. Because he failed the test, officials rejected his visa application on the grounds that he could not have provided “faithful and valuable service,” even though his service had saved six lives. Another applicant, who goes by “Mohammed,” interviewed by Anderson, took the counterintelligence test ten times and gave the same answers each time, yet somehow only passed the test nine times. His application was also rejected. There is no formal appeals process, so when an application is denied, applicants must start from scratch.

“The systemic injustice of the SIV program, and the morally compromising and dangerous means of survival that it engenders, are symptomatic of the root failures of the Afghanistan War — the longest armed conflict in US history.”

Given how frequently the Taliban attacks interpreters, it seems indisputable that all interpreters face a “serious and ongoing” threat. Yet, many applications are rejected because the applicant cannot supply written proof of the danger they face. The Taliban delivers most of its death threats by phone and rarely leaves written notes for its targets. If an interpreter was shot at, or if their home was looted, they cannot produce written evidence; and even applicants who do include written death threats in their applications are frequently denied for unknown reasons. 

Kenny interpreted for the US military for 10 years and became severely hearing-impaired on the job. He failed a security check, and now has little hope of receiving a SIV. Erin Trieb, Smithsonian, 2016.

Many interpreters give up hope of emigrating legally, opting instead to pay smugglers to transport them out of Afghanistan: over 30,000 Afghans are now refugees in Pakistan, Iran, Greece, and western Europe. The cost, however, is high. Smugglers charge Afghan asylum-seekers $2,000 to $18,000 to forge visas and passports or to transport them to safety. The US had paid its interpreters $1,000 a month at most, and now their only options for survival— assembling documents for a visa application or paying a smuggler — cost thousands of dollars. Interpreters did not earn enough to afford either option, especially if they supported families or had medical bills to pay. Indeed, financial precarity forces many interpreters and their families to make brutal compromises. In Selling Kabul, Afiya and her husband Jawid accept high-paying jobs sewing counterfeit army uniforms for the Taliban. Taroon admonishes them for aiding the Taliban, but they could not afford to keep him safe otherwise.

The systemic injustice of the SIV program, and the morally compromising and dangerous means of survival that it engenders, are symptomatic of the root failures of the Afghanistan War — the longest armed conflict in US history. With the recent disclosure of the Afghanistan Papers, published in The Washington Post this past December, the public has only now learned the extent to which the facts of this war were misrepresented to Americans and Afghans alike. With Selling Kabul, Khoury offers a new and truthful narrative: of Afghan families who respond to the direst of circumstances with bravery, sacrifice, and love — in a society where loyalty is fraught, bonds of kinship straddle political differences, friends and neighbors are forced to betray each other’s trust, and families must risk everything to keep their loved ones alive. Khoury sheds light on what the American government has taken the most elaborate pains to conceal: the human cost of its foreign policies.