Race against time to relocate NATO's Afghan translators

Like thousands of Afghan translators who served with NATO forces, Nazir Ahmad fears for his life as the US-led alliance scrambles to pull out of the country in the coming weeks.

“The situation is deteriorating now as foreign forces leave,” he told AFP in Kabul. “We are scared of the insurgents. They know our faces.”

Afghans who worked for international armed forces face a threatened wave of Taliban reprisals and fear that resettlement plans by alliance members will leave many of them and their relatives still vulnerable.

Ahmad, 35, who is now in the Afghan capital, worked with British forces for two years in the restive southern province of Helmand, and has applied for relocation to the UK to escape the increased threats to former local staff.

“The insurgents, especially the Taliban, will take revenge and cut off our heads,” he said, explaining the Islamist militia considers former local staff “spies” and “foreign allies”. 

– Accelerated relocation –

Over the past two decades, dozens of Afghan translators have been killed and tortured in targeted assaults by the Taliban.

Many more have been injured in attacks on foreign troops during patrols in armoured vehicles.

Britain announced on Monday that it would accelerate relocation for its Afghan staff who worked with the military, offering priority to any current or former locally employed staff deemed at risk.

The UK has relocated 1,360 locally employed Afghan staff throughout the whole of the 20-year conflict, and says more than 3,000 Afghans are expected to be resettled under the accelerated plans. 

But Ahmad’s contract with the British Army was terminated in 2012, for an alleged security breach, making his right to relocation in the UK uncertain. 

The government says that every dismissal during the conflict was valid and cases can only be reviewed in exceptional circumstances. 

Those who were dismissed for minor offences can be considered for relocation with the presumption of approval, but others who are deemed a security threat will continue to be excluded, it says.

“They fired me while on a patrol with British forces for carrying an old Nokia phone that had no camera,” Ahmad said, adding that friends had been sacked for low-level infractions like arriving late for work.

British government figures show that 1,010 interpreters — roughly a third of all those employed in the period — were dismissed between 2001 and 2014.

Translators like Ahmad, who said he had routinely risked his life with British forces, say the Taliban do not consider why staff were dismissed.

“We put our life in danger,” he said. “Now we are seen as infidels looking for British citizenship.”

– Clock ticking –

Retired Colonel Simon Diggins, the former British attaché in Kabul and now a campaigner for the Sulha Alliance for Afghan interpreters, said the “clock was ticking” and questioned if Afghan translators could be relocated in the remaining time. 

He said mistakes made in the handling of rejected applications — including a fire which destroyed records at Britain’s sprawling Camp Bastion base in Helmand in 2011 — showed that the management of locally employed staff was “unacceptably poor”.  

There is still a lack of detail on whether sacked staff will be relocated, he said, adding that it was “not unreasonable to demand a fair, transparent, urgent and independent review of the cases of all those dismissed”.

Visas for repatriation to the United States for former local staff have dried up in recent years. Some US officials have argued that extremists posing as interpreters use the scheme to enter the country.

A US embassy spokesperson in Kabul said there were approximately 18,000 Afghan applicants still in the country who had applied for a US Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). 

The backlog is roughly equivalent to the total number of Afghan workers who received visas in nearly two decades of conflict, according to a report by Brown University in April.

– At risk –

Omar, who asked that only his first name be used to protect his identity, worked for the US Treasury Department in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2009, and then in the visa section at the US embassy from 2010 to 2012.

So far, his application to go to the United States has not been approved.

“I’m left behind and my life is now at risk,” he said, wearing a scarf and a mask over his head so that he could not be recognised.

He said that most of his local colleagues at the time have already gone and have settled in the US, but his contract had been terminated after he’d failed a polygraph test.

“I’m worried for my life and for the fate of my children. If anything happens to me, there is no breadwinner for my family,” he said.

US chargé d’affaires in Kabul Ross Wilson said Washington “recognise(s) the debt that we owe to those who put their lives at risk on behalf of the United States”, and described dealing with the backlog of applications as a “moral obligation”.

Officials are speeding up the evaluation process of SIV applications “as quickly as we possibly can”, he added.

For local staff like Omar, however, the final push by US officials may already be too late.

He considered going to Europe on his own to escape the Taliban but the coronavirus pandemic made travel impossible.

“I regret working for the US in Afghanistan,” he said. “It was the biggest mistake of my life.”


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