KABUL, Afghanistan — Before serving as an interpreter for the U.S. military, Shafiq Nazari passed exhaustive background checks by U.S. military and intelligence agencies.
The military trusted him enough to issue him an automatic rifle. He has fired it during several firefights with insurgents, fighting shoulder to shoulder with U.S. soldiers and Marines on about 200 combat missions in Afghanistan.
Nazari, 38, a compact man with short-cropped hair and a trim black beard, has been issued a badge that gives him free run of a high-security U.S. base in downtown Kabul, where he translates for U.S. military advisors. He has 70 letters of recommendation from American officers, including two generals, praising his loyalty and courage under fire.
But none of that has been enough to persuade the U.S. State Department to grant a visa to Nazari under a program for Afghan interpreters whose lives are in danger because of their service to the United States. Nazari says he has been waiting nearly five years for approval of his application for a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV.
With the looming withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, thousands of Afghans who have served as military interpreters are in limbo as the State Department works to clear a backlog of SIV applications. Congress had authorized 8,750 visas for Afghan interpreters, but only 1,982 have been issued through Dec. 10.
For Nazari, who has worked for the U.S. military since 2006, years of waiting have left him confused and demoralized — and at risk of retaliation from insurgents who he says know what he does.
"We're living in the 21st century," Nazari said, speaking flawless English while sipping tea at a Kabul guesthouse. "If the State Department wants to find out if I'm a bad guy or a terrorist, just check their computer databases. It should take five minutes, not five years."
Sardar Khan, 26, who has translated for the U.S. military since 2007, said he has waited nearly two years for a decision on his SIV application. He jokes that he and other applicants have "SIV syndrome" from constantly checking a State Department website for updates on their cases.
"We have already proved our honesty and loyalty to the United States," Khan said. "All we ask now is for the United States to return the favor."
Jarrett Blanc, deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the State Department improved its processing times last year and has issued more Afghan interpreter visas during the latest fiscal year than in any previous year, a tenfold increase over 2012. In the last three months of the fiscal year that ended Oct. 1, he said, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued more interpreter visas than in the previous four years.
The department has also begun an appeals process for interpreters turned down at the embassy level, sped up the visa process for approved applicants and is doing more to spread word about the SIV program.
"We are committed to helping those who — at great personal risk — have helped us," Blanc said.
Officials are concerned that Afghans with ties to insurgents or terrorists will slip through the vetting process. The 2011 arrests of two Iraqi refugees in Kentucky on terrorism charges slowed the visa process, though neither had been an interpreter.
The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project calls the SIV process "prohibitively complicated, bureaucratic and opaque." The group, which also assists Afghans, says more than 5,000 Afghan applicants are backlogged. It says only 6,675 of the 25,000 visas authorized for Iraqi interpreters have been issued.
Congress last month extended the Iraq SIV program through Sept. 30, but failed to extend the Afghan program, which is set to expire Sept. 30.
Interpreters are the eyes and ears for U.S. troops, few of whom speak Afghan languages or comprehend Afghan culture. So-called terps do far more than just translate. They help U.S. commanders navigate the bewildering tribal and family alliances that dominate Afghan culture, while also guiding them through fraught relationships with their allies in the Afghan army and police.
And in many cases, they wear U.S. uniforms, carry weapons and fight alongside American troops — all for about $450 to $500 a month.
"To be honest, without Shafiq we would have been lost," said Army Maj. Michael A. Lee, who worked with Nazari in eastern Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009. "His ability to explain the issues between the different tribes and ethnic groups helped me understand the problems we were having."
The jobs come with enormous risks. Hundreds of Afghan interpreters have been killed or wounded by insurgents. Even though many interpreters wear masks, they are well-known in their hometowns or villages. The Taliban has repeatedly warned interpreters that they and their families will be killed unless they stop working for Americans.
Nazari said he has been threatened several times. After he translated an interrogation of an insurgent by a U.S. special operations officer, he said, the suspect told him: "You will be in my mind forever. When I'm released, I will find you and kill you."
Nazari and Khan said they appeared with U.S. soldiers in a Christmas party video that someone posted on YouTube. They said the video wound up in a DVD sold in Afghan bazaars under the title "Afghans Working for Infidels."
Khan says the Taliban warned his father, a police lieutenant colonel in Kabul, to tell his son to stop working for the Americans or be killed along with his family.
The American Embassy in Kabul has rejected 20% of SIV applicants, saying they had not documented a credible threat linked to their service to the United States. Among them is an interpreter who gave his name only as "Ahmed" for fear of hurting his case; he said he was turned down in November, more than two years after he applied.
Ahmed said a "threat letter" he provided was deemed inadequate. He was encouraged to file a second letter, which was also rejected, he said. He has filed a third as part of an appeal.
"Each case is evaluated on its own merits," a State Department official said.
Other interpreters say they face even greater threats after being laid off as American troops withdraw, depriving them of the safety of U.S. bases.
Shirullah Mirzamalik, 23, who worked five years as a military interpreter, said he was given a stark choice when his SIV interview at the embassy in Kabul was scheduled for the same day he was ordered to report for work with a U.S. unit in eastern Afghanistan. He chose to attend the interview, he said, and was fired.
Even though he no longer works directly for Americans, Mirzamalik said, he still fears retaliation against him, his wife and infant son. "We're not safe — everybody knows I worked for the Americans," he said.
Navy Lt. Mike Hammond said Mirzamalik proved invaluable while Hammond was stationed in eastern Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011.
"I often told Shirullah and our other interpreters that they've shown more patriotism and loyalty to the United States than the vast majority of our own citizens," Hammond said, adding: "Once U.S. forces pull out and the interpreters are left to fend for themselves apart from our bases, they and their families are going to be in serious danger."
For Nazari and Khan, time is running out. They fear they will be left jobless and unprotected when all U.S. combat troops are out of Afghanistan by December. A security agreement that would keep some U.S. forces here is threatened by a political stalemate.
Nazari said American officers have interceded on his behalf, but to no avail. He harbors no bitterness and remains hopeful of a new life in America for himself, his wife and two children. Immediate families are included in the program.
"We love American troops and the American people," he said. "It's the visa system that sucks."