Interpreters on the Run: Baghdad Underground Railroad
Steve Miska, Baghdad Underground Railroad: Saving American Allies in Iraq (Los Angeles: Onward Press, 2021). Book proceeds support the U.S. Veterans’ Artist Alliance (https://usvaa.org).
Since the United States invaded Iraq, hundreds of U.S. interpreters and their families have been killed, some after enduring brutal torture. They were, and are, being murdered because they helped U.S. forces. Theoretically, they are eligible to come to the United States through a special visa program. But this program isn’t working. If Washington does not save these interpreters, no one will, and the blood will be on Uncle Sam’s hands.
While the U.S. government does not keep official figures on the number of translators killed in its service, nonprofits like No One Left Behind have estimated there are roughly 300 who have died since 2016. As the United States prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan in less than 100 days, new attention is being given to the local partners who face imminent danger from the Taliban. In a recent letter, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Rep. Seth Moulton, a veteran who served with multiple translators in Iraq, lobbied the Biden administration for immediate evacuation of America’s Afghan partners. In late May, a group led by veterans Rep. Brad Wenstrup and Rep. Jason Crow introduced legislation to speed the visa process for Afghan partners by removing a cumbersome medical examination requirement. The Pentagon is reportedly evaluating plans for such an evacuation, which has been endorsed by outlets including the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. But Afghans who supported the United States nonetheless fear that they will be left to fend for themselves. Already, many translators who had lived on-base during their contracts have lost their jobs — and with them, their protection.
Existing U.S. programs intended to provide visas for these translators have had measured success, but bureaucracy continues to get in the way. At the end of Fiscal Year 2019, 89,000 individuals had received Special Immigrant Visas through the three programs created for local employees in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, in Iraq alone there are still roughly 100,000 individuals waiting to be saved by the country they helped. Though Congress has mandated that it take only nine months to evaluate Special Immigrant Visa applicants, the reality is that wait times average more than four years. Part of the reason for this delay is the near-insurmountable bar that translators must clear as a part of the security process. Despite the fact they have already been thoroughly vetted during their work — often going through vigorous counter-intelligence interviews every six months — and trusted with American lives, translators are required to provide extensive documentation again in the visa process.
For some, like Mohammad in Afghanistan, the wait proved too long. After 10 years of incessant threats against his life, Mohammad believed he might finally be cleared to come to the United States in 2021. But the Taliban shot him in January.
Stories like Mohammad’s occasionally make the news. But Steve Miska’s book, Baghdad Underground Railroad, provides a rare and much-needed depiction of what day-to-day life is like interpreters. This includes the challenges they consistently faced living in Iraq, navigating the visa process, and finally resettling in the United States. A retired colonel in the U.S. Army, Miska served as the commander of Task Force Justice in Baghdad from 2006 to 2007, where he and his team began the arduous process of helping translators obtain visas. Unlike the Underground Railroad that brought slaves to freedom in the 19th century, Baghdad’s pipeline out of danger had no single primary conductor. Instead, dozens of Task Force Justice soldiers and other U.S. government employees tried to best the bureaucracy in order to get more visas from Congress and convince the State Department to process them faster than Iraqi assassins could kill U.S. partners.
Baghdad Underground Railroad is a jarring and honest war memoir. It describes the human connection that developed between translators and their units, offering stories of hope that encourage the United States to do better for these brave men and women. Miska approaches his time in command with the measured tone of an experienced leader. Tragedies were not uncommon, and he spares no details when describing the fates of translators who were unable to get to the United States before it was too late. He is also self-critical of programs like Operation Orange Crush, a campaign to stop cab drivers from delivering threats from insurgents, that, he concludes, didn’t help “a single individual.”
But the Underground Railroad that Miska and Task Force Justice established also achieved successes. One example is the story of Maj. Gregg Haley and Dave, an Iraqi translator employed by Miska’s unit. The pair had become friends during their service together. After making it to the United States, Dave, with Haley’s assistance, was able to live the American dream, finding a career and raising a family. The bond from their time in Iraq has remained strong, and Dave recently crossed the country to attend Haley’s change of command ceremony.
Miska also provides clear evidence of the importance of these translators for U.S. national security. In Baghdad Underground Railroad, translators prevent costly choices. Dave, for example, helped keep an American battalion alive by discovering that the Iraqi soldiers it was training had been infiltrated by the very militia they were supposed to be fighting. In Miska’s account, interpreters are not just communicators, but in many ways the eyes and ears of their teams. They notice cultural cues that might be lost on American service personnel, saving both Iraqi and American lives. What’s more, at least six of the dozens of interpreters he helped escape enlisted in the U.S. Army upon their arrival in the United States. Many of them deployed back into combat as skilled linguists, and two of them subsequently went to work for defense contractors after finishing their enlistments. They are now conducting counter-ISIL messaging on social media, using skills that are not possessed by most native-born Americans.
Sadly, translators still face the same challenges that Miska observed in 2006, the result of a series of short-term decisions that perhaps made strategic sense at the time, but do not anymore. For instance, the documents that the State Department wants from visa applications are often burned when U.S. forces depart from an area — ironically in the name of protecting translators’ identities. In one case, a translator had his visa denied because his American supervisor, currently held captive by the Taliban, was not available to verify his recommendation letter. These examples point to a structural problem that even the valiant efforts of individual servicemembers are incapable of tackling alone.
Finally, Miska’s book highlights a bigger strategic issue. Historically, the United States has repeatedly abandoned its local partners. Only 1,500 of the roughly 70,000 Montagnards who fought with the United States in Vietnam were allowed to resettle, and the Iraqi Kurds who were called on to rise up against Saddam were initially left to fend for themselves after the first Gulf War. With President Joe Biden’s recent interim national security strategy emphasizing foreign partnerships, the reputational damage caused by abandoning yet another group of allies would directly contradict America’s stated goals. Rather than being the last resort of local partners, the United States should uphold its values and show that it is a good friend to have. As Rep. Michael McCaul said, “If our allies and partners don’t trust us to keep our word or think they will be abandoned, it could cause irreparable damage to our national security.”
Bureaucracy and excessive caution have prevented America from fulfilling its moral obligation to the men and women who served it faithfully, and risk undermining its ability to recruit local employees in the future. As the United States continues to draw down its presence in the Middle East, it should remember those who are being forgotten — the translators.
Tammy S. Schultz (@TammySSchultz), Ph.D., is the director of national security at the Marine Corps War College and a nonresident senior fellow at the New Atlantic. Noah Ramsey is a Georgetown University Security Studies master’s student. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that, “Since the United States left Iraq, hundreds of U.S. interpreters and their families have been killed.” This has been changed to reflect the fact that, despite the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq in 2011, U.S. forces returned in 2014 in response to the rise of the Islamic State.
Image: Defense Department