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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.

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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."

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