The Afghan Friends We Leave Behind

For loyalty to U.S. troops, translators and others shouldn’t pay with their lives.

In 2018, a video journalist named Abadullah Hananzai, 26, who worked for the U.S.-funded RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi, was murdered in a double suicide bomb attack in Kabul. The second bomber had disguised himself as a media worker, and purposefully blew himself up in a group of reporters who’d rushed to cover the scene of the first blast. Hananzai was one of 25 people killed—including at least nine journalists.

Hananzai’s last public Facebook post “was a tribute to his former colleague Abdul Manan Arghand, a journalist who had been shot dead by unknown gunmen the previous week,” the Committee to Protect Journalists reported.

“Arghand is now a martyr for freedom of speech,” Hananzai wrote, just five days before he would become one himself.

In 2020, Afghanistan was tied for the deadliest country in the world for journalists, according to CPJ’s data. Since the United States invaded the country in 2001, 64 journalists and media workers have been killed because of their work. Yet until Monday, those who worked for U.S. media outlets had no way to gain a visa to resettle in the United States.

A new “Priority Two” visa designation “expands the opportunity to permanently resettle in the United States to many thousands of Afghans and their immediate family members who may be at risk due to their U.S. affiliation but who are not eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) because they did not have qualifying employment, or because they have not met the time-in-service requirement to become eligible,” the State Department said on Monday.

In addition to journalists, the P-2 program also includes translators and other workers for the U.S. government and NGOs.

This is good news. But it comes after 20 years of retaliatory violence against these Afghans for helping the U.S. war effort or for reporting on it, and almost a year after Mohammed F., an Afghan interpreter for U.S. forces pled in a Washington Post article: “Mr. President-elect Joe Biden; We helped you achieve your mission, now you help us we get to safty. [sic] Thank you very much.”

So … why now?

I spoke to Sunil Varghese, policy director of the New York-based International Refugee Assistance Project to better understand details of the new program. And, first qualifying that he is not a foreign policy expert, Varghese offered his theory on why the administration has dragged its feet.

“I believe it is an intention of the Biden administration to have Afghanistan be a peaceful country with a long, stable future—so they don’t really want to encourage people to leave,” he said.

However, as American and NATO forces head home, violence is mounting. Killings of civilians have increased by nearly 50 percent in the first half of 2021, as compared with the same timeframe a year before, according to a recent report from the United Nations. (Women and children made up almost half of civilian casualties.) And on Friday, Human Rights Watch said that revenge killings by the Taliban are on the rise.

They’re going after their known critics, and anyone who worked with their enemy, the United States, is clearly one of them.

I know from experience that I could not do my job in dangerous countries without local media workers. Their knowledge of the terrain is essential: where it is dangerous, who to be wary of, etc. And I literally couldn’t work without translators.

I spent five years working at CPJ. I’ve long known the danger these men and women face as they work by my side, in places that are often their home cities or countries, enabling me to report on stories that people in those places really don’t want told.

Whatever the danger, in the end, I know I can always leave. My fixers, translators and drivers often have to remain in place, among the people who could hurt them.

I wrote here about what happened when my fixer in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jack, and I went to the country’s intelligence agency to register our presence (as required). While there was no open threat of violence, we were both detained because of our role as journalists. And while I was released before sunset, Jack had to endure hours more of government agents yelling ridiculous questions and accusations.

Local media workers and journalists face endless risk, persecution and violence for making it possible to tell crucial stories to the world. Thousands have done that work reporting on the war in Afghanistan.

The new P-2 program is welcome news to media outlets and human rights organizations, but it’s not a panacea. It’s actually a gauntlet of endless hoops to jump through—likely over years—before someone can be resettled here.

“It is definitely going to be challenging,” Varghese said.

Beyond the many interviews and background checks applicants will have to endure to obtain a P-2 visa, they also face an immediate challenge: They must leave Afghanistan to apply. But retaliatory violence isn’t delayed by red tape and due diligence—bullets and bombs don’t have to jump through hoops.

“Where do they go?” Varghese asked. “How are they going to be able to safely leave the country? And how are they going to be safely able to chill out in western Pakistan or Tajikistan for one to three years in this crazy backlogged refugee program, in which refugee officers are barely traveling to do interviews, and people are stuck in security checks for years?”

He wonders: “How is this exactly supposed to work?”

At least the State Department knows the process is arduous.

“This is incredibly hard,” said Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Monday. “It’s hard on so many levels.”

For one, there’s the overall refugee application backlog, which some estimate to be around 100,000. Adding more people into the process isn’t going to make things go any faster.

“Even people who applied at the end of Obama’s time are still waiting, or their visa was denied for no reason during the Trump administration,” Janis Shinwari, a former Afghan interpreter for the U.S. Army, told The Washington Post. Shinwari came to the United States under the Special Immigrant Visa program more than seven years ago.

Right now, at least 30,000 Afghans are fleeing the country each week because of the ever-growing Taliban violence. Fortunately, though we may never know exactly “why now,” it seems the State Department has finally woken up and realized that the people doing some of the most dangerous jobs for and with Americans have a bright red-white-and-blue target on their back.

The sad part is that in Afghanistan, they’ve worn that target for two decades. And now, as they remain behind while U.S. troops leave and the country disintegrates, the target has only gotten bigger and easier to hit.

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Lauren Wolfe

Lauren Wolfe, an award-winning journalist, runs Chills, a Substack newsletter.