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Sunday, December 4, 2016

The idea that a true soldier never leaves a comrade behind is chiseled into U.S. military creed.

This heroic duty has been celebrated in story and film, and recorded in numerous battlefield citations. But does it extend to foreign allies who, though not exactly fellow soldiers, are crucial collaborators in our military missions? Specifically, what loyalty do we owe to interpreters, the people who have kept our troops safe with their language skills, their deft understanding of culture, and often with their bravery as they walked side by side with American soldiers?

Apparently, their safety and well-being are not so highly valued.

Visas for Afghan interpreters are being denied at a rate that is alarming many in the military. It ought to anger the American people, too. Public outcry might be necessary to right this wrong.

The visas in question are part of the business of wrapping up the war in Afghanistan. We’re leaving, pulling our troops out. And we’re forcing some of Afghans who worked for our forces to stay at great peril.

Afghan interpreters have been body armor for our troops. They have been invaluable. But in choosing to work closely with our military, they made themselves an enemy of the Taliban. Some reportedly have been placed on insurgents’ hit lists. Others have received death threats. Some have already been killed.

An Afghan friend, a man who helped train our military in the Afghan language and culture at the Army’s Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, told me the interpreters are “marked.”

“They will always be known as American ‘servants’ and will be killed by the Taliban,” said Faieq Zarif, now an adjunct professor of philosophy at San Diego City College.

Complicating the interpreters’ situation, Zarif added, is the fact that the U.S. military paid them a better wage for their services than the average Afghan could earn. So there is little to no sympathy for their plight among ordinary Afghans, or from the government there.

Recognizing the dangerous but vital role interpreters played, Congress several years ago authorized special visas for which such interpreters could apply. A total of 8,750 were made available for Afghans who had worked for the U.S. government, of which about 1,600 have been granted.

The catch is that they must prove that they face “an ongoing serious threat.” And they must convince State Department officials, first through applications at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

In some of these cases, the officials pleading for diplomatic mercy for the interpreters are the members of the U.S. military whom they aided during fighting.

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