Eight years ago, in the Nangarhar province of eastern Afghanistan, Zakir Mohammad went on patrol with a platoon of American soldiers. Twenty-three years old, born and raised outside Kabul, Zakir had been working as an interpreter for coalition forces for less than a year. Zakir’s job on the patrol was to translate for the company commander, a captain, as he talked with local elders about the security situation, meetings which had lately become a staple of American infantry tactics, a way of building trust and gathering intelligence. These meetings put interpreters like Zakir in a pivotal role within the coalition effort. Leaders with two different languages and two different cultures would exchange ideas about how best to finally stabilize this wounded place, how finally to achieve peace. Zakir helped bridge the gap between them.
On the patrol back in 2009, the unit parked their vehicles and sent a detachment on foot into a village called Wazir. Zakir translated for the captain and the village elders. Afterward, Zakir and the soldiers returned to their vehicles and began the half-hour convoy back to Forward Operating Base Connolly. The ambush seemed to come from everywhere: Rifle fire exploded from the hills, rocket-propelled grenades slammed into the ground, the American gunners in their turrets were swinging around to return fire. Zakir was in the backseat afraid and unable to help—the Americans had given him a pistol, but he was in no good position to fire it—and the ambush just didn’t stop. Soon the gunner in another truck was wounded—shrapnel from an RPG blast hit him in the chest, then the gunner in Zakir’s own truck, sitting a foot away, was hit too, shrapnel striking the gunner in the face. The gunner was wearing his ballistic glasses, which saved his eyesight, and somehow even after being wounded, he was cognizant enough to return fire. The sound of the machine gun pounded through the truck.
When the convoy returned to base, two other interpreters ran up to Zakir, astonished that he was alive. A radio call had mistakenly described two Americans wounded as well as one interpreter KIA. Zakir’s friends thought he had been killed. Then they thought maybe he had been wounded. Zakir clarified that actually he was fine. In fact, he was smiling, happy to be alive. The confusion, though, was understandable: the gunner’s blood was all over Zakir’s uniform.
Zakir tells me about all this on a voice call, through Facebook messenger. He is calling from a village outside of Kabul, where for the last five years he has been afraid to go outside. The last time he left his house was six months ago. In 2012, shortly after he finished working as an interpreter, the Taliban left a death threat on Zakir’s door, condemning his service to the infidels and promising to cut off his head.
Zakir, fearing for his life, began applying for a Special Immigrant Visa to America, a process made available in 2009 by the Afghan Allies Protection Act, which was designed to protect interpreters being targeted by the Taliban. As part of the application process, all interpreters must prove that their service to America has caused them imminent danger, so Zakir attached a copy of the death threat to his application packet. He translated the threat for his American audience. In his translation, the threat reads, “We separate your head from your body.” Zakir’s application for a visa has been denied six times.
Now Zakir lives in hiding. Consequently, he has been jobless all these years, dependent on his parents and eight brothers for support. One brother is a mechanic. Another works for the Afghan National Police in the volatile Helmand province. Zakir feels constantly guilty for needing their support, for putting them, too, in danger. “They are just worried about my life,” he tells me. “I’m a big headache for them. Because of me they cannot enjoy their life. They are like, ‘Zakir, if something happens to you, we will probably have a heart attack.’ They are worrying a lot about me.”
I first got to know Zakir in 2010, when I was deployed to Nangarhar province as an infantry team leader with the Iowa Army National Guard. Zakir was assigned to my platoon, often to my fire team. My most vivid memory of him from that time is the day he wanted to go to the bank.
The infantry company I belonged to was operating out of FOB Torkham, less than a mile from the Pakistani border. Each day we convoyed to the border crossing, called Torkham Gate, where we searched vehicles and pedestrians and supervised the customs police and border patrol. Like a lot of border crossings, Torkham was also a sort of town, with its own local politics and economy. Small business owners had their individual carts selling fruit, pastries, pita bread, traditional scarves, bootlegged movies, and cell phone minutes. Larger businesses worked out of repurposed shipping containers, where mechanics fixed and sold cars and motorcycles. There was also a bank, maybe two hundred meters outside our security perimeter, down a concrete walkway. One day during a lull in the searches, Zakir asked our platoon leader if he could slip away to the bank. The lieutenant said sure, but take a security detail. I was nearby and was voluntold to go with him, so Zakir and I walked. We moved through the crowd. My rifle was slung over my chest.
“This is bullshit, you know,” he said, looking ahead as he walked. “I can go by myself. This is my own fucking country, you know.” I told him we were just trying to look out for him. He was wearing an American uniform, after all. But he went on cursing. He cursed the lieutenant, cursed the battalion, cursed the way he was being treated.
The memory doesn’t strike me now because Zakir was right or wrong, or even because of its irony, that an American was insisting on protecting Zakir just two years before our government would officially reject him for the first time, but because Zakir was, even then, struggling with a particular strangeness: we were treating him like one of us.
Since then, he has put on a little weight, his face has filled out, and his gaze seems more tired. I remember him as funny, lighthearted, and kind of ornery, but now his depression is overpowering, though there are moments of intense familiarity. When we’re talking and he misses something, he doesn’t ask What? or What was that? The military’s radio etiquette is still instinctive to him. He tells me, Say again, brother.
Special Immigrant Visas are processed by the State Department via the US embassy in Kabul. For Afghan interpreters seeking a visa, the review process is extensive. First, each interpreter must prove four things: that he or she 1) is a local national of Afghanistan, 2) has worked for the United States government for at least two years, 3) has provided “faithful and valuable service” during that time, and 4) has “experienced or is experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of the employment.” The interpreters assemble and submit this information to the US Embassy, where it is reviewed by officials in the State Department. When it’s approved, they move ahead to the next step, which requires filing a petition with the US Citizenship and Immigration Service. The petition includes a background check, written recommendations from military officers, proof of identity, and a filing fee of $375.
After the petition is approved, the interpreter can begin the actual application. The application asks about the interpreter’s family, travel history, education, military service, current employment, intended employment in the United States, current residence, and intended residence in the United States. It asks whether the applicants have any special skills using nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, or if they have ever participated in paramilitary or insurgent groups. These questions are followed by a medical history, a criminal history, and further questions about terrorism and extreme violence: “Have you ever ordered, incited, committed, assisted, or otherwise participated in genocide?” “Have you ever engaged in the recruitment or the use of child soldiers?” Followed by miscellaneous questions about whether the applicant is a communist, a polygamist, or a draft dodger.
After the application there is an interview, which is mandatorily conducted in English, at the embassy in Kabul, to which the interpreters travel at their own cost and at their own risk. The interview process—waiting to schedule it, scheduling it, doing it—takes, on average, two months. Then the interpreters undergo a medical screening, which costs $500. Then they wait. The waiting is called “administrative processing,” during which time the State Department and Department of Defense review and investigate all the claims on the application and perform extensive background and security checks. The complete process takes on average about nine months, according to the State Department. Zakir has been trying for five years.
No one has ever told Zakir in any detail why his applications and appeals are repeatedly denied. His most recent denial cites a “lack of faithful and valuable service.” Which is a bizarre interpretation of his career, considering that Zakir served for four years on seven different Forward Operating Bases and Combat Outposts across Afghanistan. Considering that an army lieutenant colonel wrote in a letter of support that Zakir “has actively contributed to the safety of American citizens.” Or considering the army first sergeant who wrote that Zakir faced risks with “courage and a steadfast attitude that is hard for most Americans to appreciate.” Or the army captain who wrote that Zakir’s “drive and tireless work ethic will allow him to succeed at any endeavor he should choose in the future. I would gladly serve with him again.” Considering that Zakir has received eight certificates of appreciation from the United States Army and Marine Corps.
Still, the SIV program has failed to provide Zakir a visa and failed thousands of others who need and deserve them. Some of these failures have been documented: New Republic has described the SIV program as “perverse,” “unspeakable,” and “bureaucratic insensitivity at its worst.” VICE has called the program “so dysfunctional that it seems to have been designed to fail.” George Packer, for the New Yorker, wrote, “Out of indifference, out of incompetence, perhaps with the best will in the world, the US government is inflicting a kind of tahjizi”—a situation in which someone is being asked to do something he can never do. Ira Glass, in an episode of “This American Life,” discussing SIVs, warned listeners with “small American children” that “this is not a story that’s going to make you feel good to be an American.” John Oliver on a segment about SIVs for Last Week Tonight interviewed an Afghan interpreter who had been stuck in the system for three years and began with the question: “What is the Pashtu word for ‘bureaucratic clusterfuck’?”
To me, the problem with Special Immigrant Visas for interpreters occurs at this very premise: the State Department conducts the program as a matter of refugee policy. Zakir is treated like a refugee fleeing political violence, with the added caveat that he served in the vicinity of American soldiers. This approach misses the point completely. Zakir’s situation is not a matter of refugee affairs but of veteran affairs. Zakir is an American veteran. He wore an American uniform. He rode in American vehicles. The American military issued him an American weapon. He lived, ate, and slept, not just among American soldiers but as an American soldier. Zakir was not just part of the infantry; he and the interpreters like him are its voice, and to separate them from the units they lived with is both arbitrary and absurd, and our commitment to the absurdity is literally killing them.
How fast it’s killing them is hard to say, though a now infamous 2009 report published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that an Afghan interpreter was being murdered every thirty-six hours.
Zakir spends his time now in a square room with a low ceiling. A bright red, ornately patterned rug covers most of the floor, sun falling onto it from the room’s single window. The gray stucco walls are bare except for a yellow wall clock. The only furniture is a small table near the door, the table covered with a blue-green cloth and laid out for tea. In the next corner is a thin mattress, blankets folded against the wall. Another tea pot and cup sit on the sill of the window. In two places, bare light bulbs dangle from the ceiling by their own cords, and for some reason it strikes me that they’re the energy-saver kind of bulbs, with the coil of glass tube. A lot of what strikes me about Zakir’s room is embarrassing: how his room gets more natural light than any spot in my apartment. How from his window he can see, past the clothes line and beyond the rock wall, a brown ridge of mountains that are beautiful.
Zakir patiently explains the difficulty of his situation. He tells me about his loneliness, which is exacerbated each time he is rejected by the United States: “All my friends already made it to US. I am the only one left behind. So I am just depressed, brother,” he says. “I am just totally sad, you know? Things happen to me that should not happen to me. It’s not like I’m a bad person. If I were a bad person, I wouldn’t be alive right now. First, Americans would kill me. Second, government would kill me. They be like, ‘This guy’s a terrorist’ and kill me. But I’m not a bad person.” He feels isolated by both his experience and the way his experience has been invalidated by the visa process. He cannot participate in his community because people there might recognize him, might report his whereabouts to others who would like to kill him. But he cannot escape his community either. He lives in poverty and is trapped there.
I ask Zakir what he wants to do if or when he arrives to the United States, what job he sees himself doing. He tells me he’ll do anything, it doesn’t matter. Anything. By default, he describes janitorial work: “I will clean floors, you know, I will clean houses, whatever I have to do is OK.” And I get what he’s saying, but I also think he has misunderstood me. I tell him like, if you could do anything, what would you do? I mean like, your dream, what is that? He tells me he’ll clean floors. And of course I have misunderstood. His dream is getting as far from Kabul as possible. He wants an ordinary life, any job at all in America, and he’s not being courteous or humble when he repeats to me that he wants to clean floors. He’s trying to need as little from us as possible, trying to make it easy for us to accept him. Zakir wants to assure us that he doesn’t have any dream that would supplant our own.
His days used to be spent traveling back and forth to the US Embassy in Kabul, going through his screenings and interviews, but now he mostly waits. No One Left Behind—a nonprofit organization founded to advocate for Afghan and Iraqi interpreters—is still trying to agitate for his case, though there’s little Zakir can do to advocate for himself. So he spends time on Facebook, watching videos on No One Left Behind’s page about Afghan interpreters triumphantly arriving to American airports. In one video, the interpreter, Jack, walks into the airport terminal wearing a blue suit, black button-down shirt, sunglasses flipped up on his head. Matt Zeller, the founder of No One Left Behind, is grinning and saying “This is it, this is it” over a soundtrack of piano music. Captions tell us this is Jack’s first time outside Afghanistan and his first time on an airplane. Then Jack is walking up the ramp, and they are all hugging, and Zeller is marveling that Jack has only two small bags, he didn’t even check anything. Then Zeller drives Jack to the beach where Jack touches the ocean for the first time.
The video is an advertisement for how it’s supposed to go, what happens when the struggle is over. Zakir shares the video onto his page, writing, “This will be the happiest day in my life, I probably cry . . . once I get off from the aeroplane at US.” It comforts me to think that he can still imagine this happening to him, but it’s discouraging to wonder if he will ever really be one of them. If Zakir will be one of the interpreters who triumphantly arrives to an American airport or if he will be one of the interpreters who dies waiting. Thousands are waiting like Zakir, never knowing which group they’ll be in. Zeller estimates that seventy-five thousand interpreters and their family members are still trapped in Afghanistan, in danger. During interviews, Zeller reminds us that if we don’t act, they could all be in the second group, all of them victims, a failure hard to imagine because it would be so catastrophic—that many people dying. Seventy-five thousand people is the entire population of Duluth, Minnesota. Or Cheyenne, Wyoming. Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Scranton, Pennsylvania.
It doesn’t take a medical professional to see that Zakir exhibits symptoms of PTSD. He has panic attacks and chronic insomnia. When he does sleep, he has nightmares about the Taliban coming to kill him and his family, or nightmares about his past experience. He dreams of going on a foot patrol with the Afghan army and a platoon of Marines. In the dream, which is a memory, they are returning again from a village when they are ambushed. Zakir is ducking behind a vehicle and Sergeant Barker is yelling for him to come on, let’s go, let’s go, and Zakir is going, and the ambush lasts longer than the others like it, and when it’s over four Afghan soldiers are dead, their bodies are obliterated, and Zakir helps pick up what’s left of them—fingers, pieces of limbs, bones—and places the matter into plastic bags which the men load aboard a Black Hawk helicopter before returning home.
Zakir tries to distract himself. He chats online with other interpreters who are already in America: Aqel, who lives in Texas; Sayed, in Iowa; Mateen, in Colorado.
“I talk to them every day. They keep telling me, ‘When are you coming?’ and ‘When will you get your visa?’ I was like, ‘Don’t ask me when I will get my visa.’ I was like, ‘I’m really tired of this life you know?’ They were like, ‘Zakir, you need to have a hope that one day you will make it to America.’ They all love America. They are like, ‘It’s beautiful and there’s no bad people.’ They are working, going to work, early in the morning, coming back in the evening. They are like, ‘We are saving, we are enjoying here.’” Zakir pauses, then says, “It’s hurting my feelings, you know? Those people never faced a single ambush, and they are in America years ago.”
It’s true he is stuck in Afghanistan, but he is also stuck in time. Back in 2011, a private from our company gave him an external hard drive full of movies. Now with the local power grid so unstable, the Internet so weak, and his family stretched for money, Zakir can’t acquire new movies to watch. He has all this time alone and spends it watching the same ones on repeat as the months and years go by.
I ask him his favorites. “I watch Taken movie,” he says. “I don’t remember the hero guy. He is like old guy but very badass hero, you know. He is protecting his daughter. And there is one dialogue that I really like, he calls those people, like, ‘If I find you and I am looking for you and I will kill you,’ you know.”
It seems bizarre to me that this dialogue intrigues him, given his situation, but maybe he’s attracted to the authority of it. Maybe power is something he likes to remember.
He loves certain actors but doesn’t know most of their names: “The Green Zone one is my favorite one. Guy in the How High movie. And Taken one. And of course Vin Diesel. All those movies. Power walker.”
“Paul Walker. He is my favorite hero. He was the best friend of Vin Diesel.”
Did you hear what happened to him?
“Yeah, man. I hear he was driving so fast he got into an accident. He was my favorite hero, too. Unfortunately we lost him, you know.”
Yeah, I say. We did.
For years I watched Zakir express his anger and frustration on Facebook each time he was rejected. I figured these were administrative errors and eventually they’d get fixed. I’d spent enough time around the government to understand what it was like to deal with its bureaucracy. But then things kept getting worse for Zakir, and he started talking more and more about suicide. He seemed totally hopeless.
Which begged the question: what the hell is the problem with this process?
I started asking around. Turns out, what looms over Zakir’s visa application is something the State Department calls “derogatory information.” In May 2012, about a year after my company came home, Zakir was fired as an interpreter—terminated “for cause”—a status which invalidates all of his service to the United States.
But if Zakir was terminated for cause, what was the cause?
No one has ever told him. The day he was fired one captain told him his biometrics data—his fingerprints and iris scans—had gotten flagged during a security check. Then a sergeant told Zakir he was merely being transferred and would be assigned a new job on a different FOB. A third person told him that he had actually been fired more than a year ago after a dispute with a soldier about whether interpreters were allowed to eat chow in their rooms. He had been fired back then and everyone just forgot to tell him, and he kept getting paid due to a clerical error.
In 2015, three years after being terminated, Zakir was still trying to find out what really happened. He e-mailed Mission Essential, the US contractor that employs interpreters in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere around the world. David Cole, a senior operations manager at Mission Essential, wrote back. Zakir forwarded the e-mail to me. It reads: “We do not have the details of the reasons [for the termination], but we are required to follow what the US military has decided. . . . I cannot provide you information that our company doesn’t have.” So while the State Department denied Zakir’s visa because, according to one of his denial letters, “Mission Essential terminated your employment for cause,” Mission Essential claimed they didn’t know the cause. The State Department pointed its finger at the contractor, and the contractor pointed its finger at the military, and the military has kept its record sealed. And while the American court system routinely provides situations for secret and confidential records to be discussed privately before a judge, Zakir has never been afforded this opportunity because he is not an American citizen.
In lieu of any official explanation, Zakir has been left to piece together his own account of the termination. The account, based on what Zakir knew about FOB Torkham at the time and what others there directly observed in the weeks following, seems to me intensely plausible:
In 2011, an American intelligence officer at Torkham began an “intelligence coordination center” on the FOB. The effort involved bringing a small number of Afghan Border Patrol soldiers onto the base, where they lived and worked alongside Americans. One of the Border Patrol soldiers, a young and ambitious sergeant named Emam Jan soon became notorious for spreading false information about Afghan nationals who worked on the base, accusing several of supporting Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Jan submitted his accusations to the American captain running the program, and the captain fired the Afghans accordingly. After more than a year of these terminations, however, the leadership at Torkham was reorganized, and a new captain took charge of the intelligence effort. The new captain not only distrusted Jan’s reports, which were never corroborated by anyone, but distrusted the effectiveness of the coordination center more. This new captain ended the program, and the Border Patrol soldiers involved were removed from FOB Torkham. Zakir was fired without any official explanation while that coordination center was operating, while Afghans were being fired because one soldier wanted to gain influence with the Americans. And even though the program was shut down because it produced unreliable intelligence, the terminations it prompted were never reevaluated.
It seems likely, then, that Zakir was abandoned because of false information. He would seem to deserve better.
Indeed, much of the conversation around Special Immigrant Visas has to do with what exactly these interpreters deserve. The conversation is about promises: promises made to our interpreters then broken. And while some interpreters are promised visas in writing, Zakir wasn’t. When he became an interpreter in 2009, Zakir never expected to live in the United States. He just wanted to serve his country, so his contract with Mission Essential didn’t include any provision for a visa. Then in 2011, some of his friends started applying. Zakir, too, began to recognize that he couldn’t stay in his home country after his work as an interpreter was over—interpreters were being targeted, abducted, tortured, and murdered—so he started assembling the necessary documentation. You could argue, then, that Zakir is not entitled to come to America. We never promised him he could. We don’t, technically, owe him this.
The logic, though, is flawed. It presumes the United States should save someone’s life only in circumstances where we have contractually obligated ourselves to doing so, presumes that we are only required to keep those promises which are dictated in binding legal agreements. Zakir’s work as an interpreter was dangerous because it cast him so intimately in the role of an American: he went on foot patrols with his face uncovered, exposed to the public, while wearing the same fatigues as the American soldiers around him. Rather than the promise of a contract, we should consider instead the promise which is implicit when putting on an American military uniform: that whoever wears the uniform has the support of everyone else who wears it, too. And further, that all those people who wear it have the support of the country they represent, which has put them in harm’s way.
But how should that support translate into action? And who should be responsible for seeing it through?
For starters: Chuck Grassley, Republican senator from Iowa.
Senator Grassley chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the annual funding of the Afghan Allies Protection Act. Accordingly, he has the most direct control over how many Special Immigrant Visas are issued each year. Grassley also happens to be the SIV program’s loudest, firmest opponent. He has consistently rebuked the project for its cost—$446 million over ten years, to date—while a spokesperson for his committee has expressed skepticism about whether these interpreters are really in that much danger, suggesting that interpreters are exaggerating the danger of their situation. In one set of negotiations, a Grassley staffer offered that maybe more SIVs could be made available if the same number of green cards were eliminated from other immigration programs. Add one immigrant over here while denying one over there—a trade, of sorts.
In other words, forget Zakir’s loyalty and devotion. Forget that he has actively contributed to the safety of American citizens. Forget that he returned from the patrol to Wazir having been so close to American injury that his uniform, too, was spattered in American blood. None of that matters. His service has been revoked. And anyway, Zakir is not really in danger, or he is too expensive to save, or we have enough immigrants already. Either he has been transferred to another FOB, or he was fired over a dispute about eating chow, or his biometrics data popped during a security check, or we don’t owe him anything in the first place.
It often surprises me that he would still want to live here at all. But that’s Zakir. He loves Americans so much. He now thinks of himself, too, as one of us. “I’m completely American,” he tells me. “But just born in wrong country, you know.” He says this because all his closest friends are either Americans or Afghan nationals who have resettled in the United States. He says it because the only version of survival he can imagine is to come to America. He can’t live in his room much longer. He can’t continue to exist in hiding. It’s like living in jail, he says. For him, Afghanistan is jail, or it is hell, but when he thinks of America, his belief in it is almost tragically pure. When he thinks of America, he does not think of our faults, our disputes, or our cruelty. He thinks of an airport terminal. He thinks of going to see the ocean for the first time. He thinks of freedom.