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Originally published Saturday, April 20, 2013 at 6:19 AM

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Afghans who aided U.S. still hope to flee

As the U.S. pullout hits full pace and bases are shut down, hundreds of Afghans who aided the military mission have suddenly found themselves without jobs or military protection despite the risk of Taliban attack. They are among thousands of Afghans waiting to hear if the U.S. will accept them.

The New York Times

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KABUL, Afghanistan — The first time the Taliban tried to kill him, Sulaiman was driving to his base when his truck was hit by a rocket, knocking him down a cliff.

The insurgents knew his vehicle, its license-plate number and, most important, his occupation: a high-value combat interpreter for U.S. Special Operations troops in Afghanistan.

They left him for dead in that attack, in July 2011, but he got out with a broken collarbone, two broken ribs and a new sense of caution. Since then, he has survived two more attacks.

Sulaiman’s U.S. supervisor no longer lets him travel by car when he leaves his military base to visit his family. But no one feels that is protection enough, given the premium the Taliban put on killing Afghans who help U.S. forces.

His best hope is one that has remained beyond his grasp despite years of effort: a U.S. visa.

Sulaiman is one of thousands of Afghans who have directly aided the Western military mission here and are waiting to hear from the State Department on special immigration visa applications. In Iraq, congressional legislative action helped thousands of at-risk Iraqis get out, but Afghans find themselves in a more difficult situation, with fewer visas and fewer options.

Now, the backlog is growing. As the U.S. pullout hits full pace and bases across the country are shut down, hundreds of Afghans have suddenly found themselves without jobs, leaving them without military protection despite the continued risk of attack by the Taliban.

The danger is especially real for the estimated 8,000 interpreters who have worked for the Americans. Though no one tracks the targeted-violence figures, anecdotal evidence is grim — at least a few people are said to be killed each month. In February, two interpreters were gunned down in Logar province, south of Kabul, the same province where Sulaiman was first attacked. In December, an interpreter working in Jalalabad was singled out while heading home on leave. The Taliban killed his two brothers in the attack.

Sulaiman, 26, who asked to be identified only by his first name so as not to put his family at greater risk, is one of the relatively lucky ones. He is still employed, and his U.S. military colleagues are working hard to help him.

But he is still waiting. He believes a 2008 visa application was lost in the bureaucratic ether. A second application, in late 2011, yielded an embassy interview last year. Since then, though, he has received automated responses to his entreaties.

The State Department declined to talk about his case.

Several of his Special Operations colleagues have fired off letters imploring the State Department to expedite his application, adding to the stack of recommendations lauding his skills and courage.

“If this takes too long, if there is an error somewhere, he’s compromised and his family is compromised,” said his current supervisor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of security reasons. “We kind of feel like we’re watching the clock wind down right now.”

So far, about 22 percent of the available visas for Iraqis have been granted, according to a letter to the State Department and White House from concerned members of Congress. The figure is closer to 12 percent for Afghans, the letter states.

“In my opinion, the story in Afghanistan is a sorry, shabby echo of what’s happening in Iraq,” said Kirk W. Johnson, the founder of the List Project, an organization that assists Iraqi refugees in obtaining visas to the United States.

Thousands of Afghan applicants are caught in an approval process that lasts more than two years. As many as 5,000 were waiting to begin the process as of last fall.

The State Department declined to comment on the number of applications submitted, the backlog, or any phase of the visa-approval process. Privately, some officials say the consular division has doubled resources to increase its processing ability, though that has not been publicly announced or confirmed.

To kick-start the process, some U.S. lawmakers say that as early as this month, they plan to introduce legislation to extend the timeline for visa programs in Iraq and Afghanistan and to broaden the type of family members who can come along.

Among the things that will not change is that Afghans who worked for U.S. companies, including the news media and nongovernmental organizations, will still not be eligible for the special visas, even though such Iraqis are eligible. And legislators are not seeking additional visas for Afghans.

As it stands, issuing the available visas has been hard enough.

State Department figures through December suggest the agency would have to grant about 1,200 visas a month to use all 7,500 visas before the Afghan Allies program expires at the end of fiscal year 2013. Put another way, consular officials would need to issue every month more than four times the visas they did in their most productive year, 2009.

Still, Sulaiman’s situation would seem to present a clear-cut case of need.

He has been working with the Americans for 10 years as a combat interpreter for coalition forces in all but four provinces across the country, translating battle strategy to Afghan forces in the middle of firefights and in high-level meetings with elders in contested villages, among other efforts. He has been on more than 300 missions, and his ties to Special Operations put him in even more danger than most interpreters.

Everyone on base calls him Sam.

His commitment, his supervisors say, has never wavered. If he makes it to the United States, he hopes to join the military and attend Army Ranger School.

“I could ask Sam to do anything tomorrow, and he wouldn’t even blink,” his U.S. supervisor said.

But Sulaiman’s desperation is growing. In December, fearing another attack, he sent another email to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. In it, he explained that he had not been able to go home for months because of the risk to him and his family, and implored them to look at his visa application again.

An auto-reply arrived in his inbox a few hours later: His application required further processing.

“Individuals who believe they are in peril in their place of residence should consider leaving that location and moving to another nearby safe place, inside or outside the country,” the email said.

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