KABUL, Afghanistan — The two bullet-riddled bodies were found splayed on the road near a car. Both men — one an interpreter and the other a security guard — had worked at an international base outside Kabul.
They knew their lives were in danger, relatives said. The Taliban had threatened to kill them if they did not come up with money and stop helping NATO-led forces.
But the men were supporting large extended families.
Their recent deaths provided a chilling reminder of the dangers faced by thousands of Afghans who have served as interpreters, cultural advisors and other support staff to foreign troops and diplomats during the 11 years of war in Afghanistan.
Many have waited months, if not years, for special permission to move to the United States or other coalition countries. With the bulk of foreign forces due to depart in 2014, they fear they will be left behind.
“I’m a dead man walking,” said Ghafar, an interpreter who has spent six years working with U.S. troops in Kabul, the capital, and in the dangerous eastern provinces. “I feel like I’m not living in this world. My soul is walking around.”
Ghafar, 37, has accompanied U.S. forces on countless foot patrols, raids and interrogations. Along the way, suspected insurgents have called him an infidel and warned that they would come after him, threats he used to laugh off.
“I thought, ‘The Taliban is over. They are history,’” he said. “‘It’s better to help the coalition forces to bring peace and stability.’”
Now he fears the job could cost him his life. He has no faith in the country’s leaders and worries that security will collapse when foreign troops withdraw.
When he travels to and from work, Ghafar, who did not want his full name published for safety reasons, wears dark sunglasses and wraps a scarf around his face.
Despite holding down a job that has paid well at more than $900 a month, nearly four times what a soldier or policeman might earn, Ghafar long ago applied to immigrate to the United States. He said he and his wife would like to see their boys, ages 2 and two months, grow up in a safe and “more open society.”
Ghafar initially applied for one of 50 “special immigrant” visas issued each year to the government’s Afghan and Iraqi interpreters, but the program is oversubscribed. So he applied again through the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009, which authorized 1,500 special visas a year — up to a limit of 7,500 — for Afghans whose service to the U.S. military or government put them at risk.
In response to this second application, which Ghafar filed in 2010, the U.S. government interviewed him in January. He is waiting to hear back.
U.S. officials acknowledged that the Afghan Allies program has been slow to get off the ground. Sixty-three of the visas were issued in the last fiscal year, according to figures released by the State Department. The numbers do not include spouses or children, whose visas do not count against the annual allotment.
In all, officials said more than 2,200 Afghans, including the relatives of applicants, have been granted special visas since fiscal 2007.
U.S. officials declined to specify how many applications they have received, but said a big push was underway to clear a backlog. More than 1,000 interviews were scheduled with applicants and their families in January. Additional staff has been hired to process the applications, and the numbers of visas issued so far this year already exceeds the total for 2012, said a U.S. Embassy official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Extra screening measures introduced in response to a “credible threat” caused some delays, a State Department official said.
Two Iraqi refugees were arrested in Kentucky in 2011 on federal terrorism charges and pleaded guilty to conspiring to send weapons, cash and explosives to the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq.
“We need to protect our borders and make sure qualified people are coming through, but we want to do it as quickly as possible because these people are under threat,” the embassy official said.
Afghan interpreters and advisors have helped foreign forces understand the culture and establish relationships with community leaders, officials said.
They have braved roadside bombs, ambushes and other attacks aimed at foreign troops and have also been targeted repeatedly outside their jobs. Last year, insurgents killed at least 24 Afghan civilians working for the coalition, according to NATO figures.
Grieving relatives said the interpreter and security guard slain near Kabul, both in their early 30s, were sharing a ride to work in the guard’s car when Taliban gunmen caught up with them. Family members said it is dangerous for them to remain in the district, but they don’t have the means to leave.
The interpreter’s brother, who is caring for the man’s widow and three children, said he too works for the U.S. government. The day after his brother died, he applied for a special visa.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is leaving it up to the 50 coalition members to decide what provision they will make for Afghan employees and contractors when the combat mission ends next year.
Britain, the second largest troop contributor after the United States, does not have a resettlement program. It is “looking very carefully” at ways to support locally hired staff members as it draws down its forces, an embassy spokeswoman said.
Canada, which pulled out its combat troops in 2011, has relocated 750 former Afghan staff and family members. Canadian officials expect the number to grow to 800. Australia and France also have announced resettlement programs for at-risk staff.
On a recent day, an interpreter who adopted the American alias “Jack” while working with U.S. police mentors for four years, logged onto his computer to check the status of his visa application. He has been waiting nearly two years.
Jack thought the glowing reference letters from his supervisors in the southern province of Kandahar, heartland of the Taliban insurgency, would clear his way to America.
One U.S. officer said Jack “sacrifices his safety and well-being to better his country, America and the world.” Another said the special visa program was designed for people like Jack, who has “risked much, including his life, to support U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan.”
“These letters I received, do they have value or not?” Jack said, staring hopelessly at the papers spread out on his parents’ living room floor. “I served the U.S. military, the U.S. people, at a bad time in Kandahar.”
Jack said he has felt like a marked man since 2011, when at least 488 inmates, most presumed to be Taliban fighters, escaped from Kandahar’s main prison.
One of his jobs was to help U.S. troops collect biometric data from the political prisoners. The prisoners spat at him, and some said, “We will get you.”
Last year, the owner of a shop where Jack sometimes bought food told him that two men on motorcycles had threatened to shoot them both if they spotted him there again. He quit his job as an interpreter soon after and fled to Kabul. He rarely leaves his parents’ home.
Jack doesn’t trust Afghan security forces. In some cases, he said, “their right hand is with the Taliban and their left hand is with the government.”
He doesn’t even trust members of his own family, some of whom held government posts in Kandahar when the Taliban was in power.
“If the Americans leave this country,” he said, “I will be the first target.”
Baktash is a special correspondent.