The United States' war effort in Afghanistan is to wind down this year, leaving a multitude of unanswered questions and plenty of loose ends. But the United States must not leave any ambiguity about the fate of the interpreters who aided U.S. forces over the past 13 years. Congress has approved a special immigrant visa program for those who courageously served as the eyes and ears of the troops, but problems remain.
The point of the program and a parallel effort in Iraq is to provide visas to resettle in the United States for interpreters who have faced threats or face them now because of their association with the troops. The Afghan program, approved in 2009 for five years, expires this year. The recently enacted defense authorization law extended the program in Iraq but not for Afghanistan. This should be among the first orders of business when Congress reconvenes.
There are thousands of interpreters and family members waiting. According to the State Department, some 5,000 applicants are already at various stages of the process. Not all may be approved, but, as bases close, more applications may come.
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the department reports, 1,600 applicants and family members were approved. In the first three months of this fiscal year, approximately 350 applicants and 650 family members were approved. The department must sustain this pace and boost it to deal with all who are waiting.
Because the State Department allows some carryover of unused visas year to year, this fiscal year there may be 3,000 available for applicants (there is no limit for family members). If there are 5,000 or more applicants, expect a crush at the door one more reason why Congress should extend the Afghan program.
Under the law, those who seek the special immigrant visas must have demonstrated faithful and valuable service, have worked for the United States for a year or more and show they have experienced or are experiencing a threat as a consequence of that employment. The risk assessment is carried out by a committee at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Recently, applicants who claim that they face future threats such as revenge attacks by the Taliban have been rejected.
The defense authorization law includes a provision allowing for the consideration of "country conditions" in the threat assessment. While this provision is vague, we urge the State Department to interpret it as meaning that prospective threats should be taken into account.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, a war veteran, has insisted on getting this right. Taking into account potential future threats confronting men and women who served shoulder to shoulder with U.S. soldiers would be the right thing to do.