The Debt the U.S. Owes to My Afghan Interpreter—and Others

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‘Don’t go down that street,” my interpreter, who goes by the nickname Shafo, whispered into my ear. “This boy said it will explode.” I glanced at the child. He was probably 10, wearing a clean white button-down shirt, though his face was smudged with dirt. “The Taliban told the boys not to go down this alley,” Shafo continued. “Apparently there are bombs underneath the bricks.”

With dozens of compounds left to clear on streets that looked identical, this information was priceless for my U.S. Army Special Forces team. Shafo was an exceptional interpreter. Instead of simply translating, he probed for context, listened when our detainees muttered to each other, helped us build rapport with residents, and always sought out local kids, often canaries in the coal mine. He was a secret weapon in a fight in which enemy combatants don’t wear uniforms.

But now the tables have turned for Shafo. Instead of helping us hunt insurgents, he is being targeted by the Taliban. As the U.S. military prepared for withdrawal, Afghan interpreters were let go. Shafo’s contract was terminated after a year of translating for the U.S. He quickly found work teaching at a local school, and despite a 75% pay cut, he was content. That is, until a month ago, when Shafo noticed people following him home. He recently told me that young men shout outside his home at night: “We know you worked for the Americans, and we are going to kill you!”

“I don’t want my children to be orphans,” he told me over Signal two weeks ago. He’s now trying to come to the U.S., but the process of obtaining a special immigrant visa, designed to support our military allies, takes almost three years to complete.

The Afghan security forces are already struggling with reduced American and coalition support. Five of the Afghan special-forces soldiers I worked with last year have been killed in recent battles. After the U.S. withdrawal is complete this September, it will be harder for Afghan security forces to ward off Taliban attacks. The Journal reported on Thursday that U.S. intelligence agencies concluded the government could fall in as soon as six months.

Shafo’s story is far from unique. A nonprofit called No One Left Behind estimates that more than 300 U.S. interpreters and family members have been killed since 2014. Shafo’s family has endured a Russian invasion, two decades of civil wars, and a seemingly unending Islamist insurgency. His father, a shopkeeper, closed his business whenever the Taliban was nearby. He hid Shafo and his siblings as neighborhood children were abducted by the Taliban. Shafo told me that his elderly neighbor recently pleaded, “What is my sin?” as Taliban fighters beat him to death.

Shafo, like his father, is a proud Afghan and wanted to help. So he studied English and sought work as an interpreter. His loyalty to the mission never wavered. Once, we received information suggesting that the Taliban were planning an operation in a neighboring village. To prevent an ambush, we had to attack quickly. We left at night. Because our team prohibited interpreters from carrying weapons, Shafo carried medical equipment. You have to respect anyone who walks into a gunfight without a gun.

We took fire at the edge of the town. An Afghan warrant officer took a shotgun wound to the chest, and a village child was shot in the leg. Shafo raced to help the medics translate. The firefight drew attention and the Taliban attacked. But Shafo never left the child’s side, even as we called in air strikes. He helped us carry the boy and the Afghan officer to safety amid continued firefights.

It is outrageous that the U.S. might abandon Shafo and those like him because of regulations and bureaucratic delays. The U.S. should double the number of special immigrant visas available to Afghans and reduce the service requirement to one year to mirror the policy for Iraqi interpreters. The Biden administration should also digitize and automate the visa process, hire more people to accelerate background checks. The Biden administration’s decision this week to evacuate thousands of Afghan interpreters, fixers and drivers is a crucial step, but if America doesn’t expand access to special immigrant visas and accelerate their processing, we will leave behind people like Shafo. We have made this mistake before, with awful consequences.

When the U.S. left Vietnam in 1975, the military evacuated thousands of vulnerable South Vietnamese to Guam, where they waited without fear of reprisal for their special immigrant visa applications to be processed. Those refugees seeded new communities in places like North Carolina that have made tremendous contributions to our country. Still, the U.S. failed Vietnamese allies like the Montagnards, who worked closely with the Americans and were targeted when Saigon fell.

During the Special Forces Qualification Course, Vietnam veterans showed us pictures of the Montagnards who’d fought alongside them and were never seen again. “They were the best allies we could have asked for,” an old Green Beret told me. “Never let this happen again.” Yet today, by following bureaucratic stipulations and casting aside those who never dreamed of doing the same to us, we are dangerously close to forgetting that lesson.

Shafo keeps the faith, but his wife worries for his safety. She is expecting their third child and fears her husband won’t be alive for the birth. “We have a moral commitment to those who helped us,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley has said.

We also have a national-security imperative. If the U.S. abandons those who served with such loyalty and conviction, why would anyone risk his life to help America again? Who will tell our soldiers which streets to avoid?

Mr. Watters is a U.S. special forces sergeant. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2020.

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