Visa program for Afghan allies comes up empty
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghans who have spent years working for U.S. troops, diplomats or agencies say their lives are at risk for that service as soldiers head home, and fear a visa program that promised an escape for those facing serious threats has failed them.
The Afghan Allies program was approved two and half years ago for Afghans who have worked for the U.S. government. Since then, of the 2,630 who have so far applied, 48 have been rejected and one has received an interview.
Not a single visa has been handed out under the program.
Those still waiting said they have been marked as traitors by the Taliban, and fear they will be targeted if they remain when the last of foreign combat troops leave at the end of 2014.
"My real concern is when the coalition forces and American troops withdraw from Afghanistan," said Mohammad Zaher Moshtaq, employed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for the past two and a half years. He applied for his visa more than seven months ago and has not heard back.
"I will be worried about my life. That is my concern. If I have not heard anything from this program. I don't know what my other option would be after 2014," he said.
Interpreters working with the U.S. military already face grave dangers in the line of duty. An Afghan interpreter died along with three foreign troops in southern Afghanistan in late October when an Afghan soldier opened fire on them.
Outside work there are further threats. Assassinations of government and foreign military employees, or those seen as their supporters, are rising. Others receive "night letters" warning them to quit their jobs or they will be killed.
An interpreter, one of several Afghans who did not want to be named for fear of upsetting their U.S. employer and visa hopes, worked for 7 years for U.S. troops. An anonymous phone call two years ago labeled him a spy and told him to quit his job based in Kabul or "you will be killed."
If Americans trusted Afghans enough to work with them in deadly Afghan environments, they should trust them enough to let them enter the United States, he said.
"We have helped them night after night, day after day. Now we want their hand," he said. "If they don't help us, every Afghan will know they abused us, used us."
The U.S. embassy in Kabul said it is putting more resources into processing applications for a scheme that allows for 7,500 visas to be issued until 2013, or 1500 per year.
A unit set up in September "has made significant progress in reducing the backlog" for initial stages of applications, said acting assistant chief of mission Alaina Teplitz.
"The pipeline is full and moving and it wasn't previously," she said. "It has not been simple, our feeling on this is we had to get this right," she added, without specifying what problems have held up the program since 2009.
The embassy said it has now issued 110 initial approval letters -- the first of five steps to getting a full visa, which requires checks of factors including background and employment.
But Jamshid Anwari, 26, an interpreter for the U.S. military since July, 2006, said time is running out.
"I can't trust Afghan national security forces, I can't trust the police...I have to get out. If I live in Afghanistan, somebody definitely will kill me."
Anwari first applied two years ago to an older program that awards up to 50 US visas a year for Afghan interpreters, except for 2 years where 500 were allowed. So far a total of 797 interpreter visas have been issued, the U.S. embassy said.
But when that program was full, he applied to the Afghan Allies program. He received an email ten months ago saying the initial mission approval letter would arrive shortly.
"I am still waiting," he said. "It is frustrating."
Afghans must prove an ongoing threat and at least one year's employment by the U.S. government to gain a visa.
The first half of this year was the deadliest for civilians yet in the last decade of conflict in Afghanistan, with nearly 1,500 killed, according to the UN. Some Afghans fear higher fatalities if the Taliban regains power either through U.S.-backed peace talks or through force.
Moshtaq, 27, a former senior logistics manager for a USAID agricultural project, has spent $1200 on the visa applications for his family. He was warned by a Taliban commander's brother in Kapisa to quit his job. "Most of the people knew that I had a senior position, which was a high risk," he said.
(Reporting By Christine Kearney, editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Sanjeev Miglani)
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