Afghanistan Needs the Terps to Stay

PRT Zabul visits Arghandab River

In the evening after a day of patrols in central Helmand, I would often find myself sitting and talking with my interpreter Mohammad. He was a Pashtun from Kabul who had been working with British forces – to whom I was then assigned – for some time. He was often smiling and always insightful. I enjoyed our conversations, particularly when they turned to his family life and personal aspirations. Mohammad did not want to stay in Afghanistan. He was attracted by the allure of the West. He wanted to move to Europe or the United States and settle there. How would he get out? He knew he stood little chance of getting a visa, so he planned to one day hire a smuggler to get him out of Afghanistan. When I asked about these smugglers, Mohammad smiled and his answers became elusive. I let the matter drop and we moved on to something else.

Many months later, after my Afghan adventure, I was in London visiting a comrade – one of a circle of Brits with whom I became close in counterinsurgency’s crucible in Helmand. He asked if I had heard about his interpreter. I hadn’t. He went on to tell me a story both amazing and horrible. His interpreter was a gentle young man, a Pashtun from near Kabul like Mohammad. Let’s call him Hashmatullah. His family had been getting threats in their village outside the capital from the Taliban. The insurgents had heard that Hashmatullah had been working with British forces and demanded that he stop or his family would suffer the consequences. So Hashmatullah returned home from his lucrative, but dangerous job in the south. But this did not satisfy the insurgents. They wanted his blood. After a series of attempts on Hashmatullah’s life, one he survived by hiding down a well in his family’s compound, he knew he had to get out of Afghanistan. But how? His family turned to the smugglers.

After selling a great deal of land, his family paid tens of thousands of dollars to a Hindu Kush coyote to get Hashmatullah out. He was given a ticket on a flight. The proper bribes were paid to customs officials. And after transiting the Gulf, he ended up somewhere in southeastern Europe – perhaps Greece, though he was never sure. The traffickers left him and his fellow refugees in a city park and told them to stay there. Although he spoke near fluent English, as well as his native Pashto and Dari, Hashmatullah had never travelled outside of Afghanistan. He was scared. He couldn’t leave the vicinity of the park for fear that he would miss the rendezvous, although the traffickers did not give him a time or a date. He ended up staying in that park for a month. Hashmatullah lived as homeless refugee, eating out of restaurant trashcans and avoiding the authorities. Eventually the smugglers came back for him, gave him a fake passport, a plane ticket for London, and a ride to the airport.

When he arrived at Heathrow, the customs agent spotted the fake passport easily and Hashmatullah declared asylum, which he was eventually granted. To my knowledge, he is doing well enough in the United Kingdom.

Recently at War on the Rocks, Rusty Bradley – a retired U.S. Special Forces officer – wrote a moving article arguing for visas for those interpreters who have worked with U.S. forces. “Afghan interpreters are throwing themselves at the altar of freedom only to be left to die,” he writes, insisting they deserve and should be given visas to come to America.  He joins a chorus of interpreter advocates – many of them combat veterans like Bradley – who have pushed hard for visas for their own interpreters and their comrades. It seems the U.S. Congress heard their pleas. Today, members of the House and Senate are introducing a bill that would extend the Afghan Special Visa Immigrant Program, which was due to end this fall, through 2015 and expand it to 3,000 more interpreters, to include those who worked for the news media and NGOs.  The bill and the program are specifically targeted at those interpreters and their families who are in danger.

In my heart, I sympathize deeply with this argument. Bradley would gladly offer his own home to his interpreters until they get on their feet, and if Mohammad were able to come here, I know I would offer him the same. But in my head I know that we should try to separate our own personal feelings from what is, in reality, a decision with strategic consequences.

How do we square Mohammad’s ambitions and Hashmatullah’s plight with the needs of Afghanistan? With our own hopes for the country?

The United States and its allies have employed tens of thousands of Category 1 interpreters (local national) in Afghanistan since 2007. They were paid approximately between $800 and $1100 a month – a high salary by Afghan standards. And this is where the problem began. Of course U.S. and allied forces wanted to attract the best candidates possible. But in doing so with such an attractive salary, they distorted the Afghan labor market. With dollar signs in their eyes, university graduates, trained bureaucrats, and even medical doctors flocked to forward operating bases instead of government ministries and the security forces. Hospitals and government offices simply cannot compete with the U.S. and allied governments in terms of pay, and they were going after the same pool of relatively educated, multi-lingual, and savvy Afghan males.

These interpreters certainly deserved their salaries, with many of them seeing combat regularly and putting their lives, and sometimes those of their families, at risk. Mohammad, my interpreter, had previously worked with British soldiers mentoring the Afghan National Army and found himself in more firefights than he could remember over the years. His gig with our Human Terrain Team saw him in far fewer nasty situations. I’ll never forget the calm smile on his face as he leaned back against a burm the first time we were in caught in a firefight together. The duties of the job itself weren’t the only problem. The journey home to visit their families could be fatal as well. The Taliban routinely set up checkpoints along Highway 1 with designs to find, capture, and kill government supporters, interpreters, and security forces.

I respect interpreters for facing these dangers, but they are far from the only Afghans who put themselves in dangerous positions. The members of the Afghan National Security Forces have by and large sought out far more dangerous jobs for much less pay. But no one is calling for a special visa program for them. That would, of course, be ridiculous. We need them to stay to fight the Taliban. Similarly, the locals who switched sides from 2009 to 2011 and started providing intelligence to our forces have not been offered American visas. There is not a soul in Afghanistan who isn’t under a moderate level of mortal danger. This is a war zone, and it has been for thirty years.

What makes interpreters different? It’s simple. We know them well.  They have patrolled, eaten, slept, fought, and even died alongside our men and women in uniform. We feel a natural and healthy personal attachment to them. We want to be loyal to them and do “the right thing.” But if it is the wrong thing for Afghanistan, is it still right? While the families of murder victims are afforded the opportunity to speak during sentencing hearings for the killers, they are not permitted to choose the punishment. Similarly, those of us who care deeply for our former interpreters should not be the main drivers of the State Department’s visa policies.

I admire our interpreters so much that I think their continued contributions are important for the future of their country. They are, in many respects, the most talented people Afghanistan has to offer. They are well-versed in local politics and military operations, and they come to the table with more education than the average Afghan. They know how to mediate between foreign forces and donors, locals, and Afghan security forces and government officials. These are the men and women whom Afghanistan needs to build a state that can stand on its own – a state that can prevent its territory from once again becoming a haven for terrorist networks. As such, it would be a mistake for the United States to open its doors to our brave interpreters, even with the sad knowledge that some of them will likely die as the war in their country continues.

It may not be anyone’s job to tell these souls where and how to live their lives – some might decide to hire smugglers to get them out anyway – but it is well within Washington’s right to decline to create incentives for another Afghan brain drain. If our mission is to set the stage for Afghanistan’s success as a state so that it may not once again become a haven for transnational terrorists, it would be a mistake to help deprive Afghanistan of its most important resource: human capital.


Ryan Evans is the assistant director of the Center for the National Interest and the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army

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