Skip to main content

We're leaving Afghan allies behind to die

By Matt Zeller and Janis Shinwari
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Matt Zeller's Afghan translator saved his life by killing two Taliban fighters
  • Writers: Taliban put translator on top of its kill list: Took five years to get him and family to U.S.
  • U.S. has visa program to get interpreters to America, but visas running out
  • They say U.S. is abandoning allies to death as we retreat: We need to expand visa program

Editor's note: Matt Zeller is a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, a fellow at the Truman Project for National Security, an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project, and a former officer of the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a co-founder of No One Left Behind with Mohammed Janis Shenwari, who served as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan for seven years. He is credited with saving the lives of at least five U.S. soldiers in combat and has received many U.S. military commendations. He works for Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

(CNN) -- I never thought my Afghan translator would save my life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill me. Janis did just that. I'm here today because he had my back in a way I only thought an American soldier would.

Matt Zeller
Matt Zeller
Janis Shinwari
Janis Shinwari

On April 28, 2008, I found myself in the worst ambush of my life -- surrounded by 45 Taliban fighters, out of grenades, and running low on bullets. We had been fighting nonstop for an hour. A mortar round landed within a few meters of my position and sent me flying into a ditch.

Coming into to consciousness I realized I would likely die on that desolate Afghan hillside -- the mortars were too close and accurate to miss me again. At that moment, I felt a body slam into the ditch next to me and simultaneously heard the unmistakable sound of an AK-47 firing next to my head.

I turned and saw my Afghan interpreter Janis Shenwary glaring down the barrel of his rifle at the bodies of the two Taliban fighters he had just killed. They had me dead to rights until Janis acted to save mine. On that April day he taught me the true price of loyalty and brotherhood forged through combat.

The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.

For the next five years, we tried to secure him and his family the U.S. visas he clearly had earned. After an extensive effort that involved a national media campaign, the legal and political guidance of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project and the Truman National Security Project, working with more than a dozen members of Congress, we eventually prevailed.

He now lives in Washington with his family. Together, we run No One Left Behind, an organization dedicated to ensuring we fulfill our nation's promise to bring these allies to America after their service and provide them with housing, furniture, and employment assistance. We consider keeping that promise a matter of national security -- nothing less than the credibility and honor of the United States is at stake.

Wars have consequences, many unforeseen. One of the most profound and seldom-discussed consequence is what happens to our Iraqi and Afghan allies.

The majority of the Iraqi and Afghan people did not seek these wars -- they were at best begrudging participants hopeful that our promise of a better life came to pass. Moreover, most of these people did not pick up arms and fight us -- indeed, the bulk of the fighting in both wars has always been confined to limited segments of the population.

Most important, many of these people chose to fight with us because we implored them to -- and now they are going to die because we failed to truly defeat our common enemies and we're apparently comfortable with abandoning our allies as we retreat.

A common truth among U.S. military veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars (especially those of us who served on the front lines) is that our interpreters most likely saw more and worse combat than the majority of us. As a result, we tend to view our "terps" as full and equal combat veterans.

They may have not been full soldiers, but they wore our uniforms, ate our food, bled our blood, saved our lives countless times, and fought and killed our enemies. When we left, they remained behind to join our replacements for yet another tour. And we told them we would give them all U.S. visas if, after at least a year's worth of faithful and honorable service, they found themselves under duress.

Dozens killed in Afghanistan car bombing
Could Afghanistan be the next Iraq?
Afghans angry over prisoner swap

Almost all interpreters face some threat -- being a collaborator also has consequences. But many end up on the Taliban or al Qaeda's hit lists. And that's where we can't understand our government's treatment of these fellow veterans.

If they were American citizens, we'd spare no expense protecting them and helping them flee to the safety of U.S. soil. But, because they were born Afghan or Iraqi, they're somehow subject to a lower standard of treatment. The truth is, these translators did a lot more than most Americans to protect and defend our country. They have earned their place in America.

Sadly, the bureaucrats in Washington do not feel as strongly about saving these allies as the veterans who actually fought these wars.

Sometime in this week or the next, the State Department will run out of visas it can issue to Afghans. To its credit, the State Department has pleaded with Congress to pass the Afghan Allies Protection Extension Act of 2014, which would renew the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program for another year and add 6,000 new visas for eligible Afghans.

The State Department estimates that it has a backlog of 6,000 Afghan applicants. If Congress fails to pass the law by September 30, 2014, the program will end and these applicants, many who have been waiting years for a ruling on their application, will likely never receive the visas they so bravely earned. We will simply abandon them to a gruesome and torturous death at the hands of the Taliban.

As an American soldier and a former Afghan translator who lives in America and dreams of the day he becomes a citizen, the prospect of abandoning our allies and breaking our promise disgusts us.

How many times in the last century have we vowed "never again" after profound human suffering? We said it after we left Saigon in 1975. And again as we watched from the sidelines in horror at Rwanda in 1994. I fear we may be already saying it in Iraq.

The coming tragedy in Afghanistan is entirely preventable. We haven't yet abandoned our closest Afghan allies to Taliban slaughter. All we have to do is have the courage to act -- if we don't soon, we'll once more absently vow "Never Again."

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 6:48 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 4:49 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT