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In Afghanistan, endangered interpreters await US visas

Thousands have applied; backlog of cases expands

KABUL — Of the more than 5,700 Afghans who have applied for US visas under a program tailored for those who have supported the American war effort, 32 have been approved, the State Department says, leaving the rest in limbo as foreign forces start withdrawal.

The growing, protracted backlog threatens to undermine congressionally approved legislation, as well as the longstanding guarantee that the United States will protect Afghans whose contribution to the American mission has left them hunted and vulnerable.

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In 2009, the Afghan Allies Protection Act allocated 7,500 visas for Afghans employed by the US government, mostly as military interpreters. The legislation was intended to respond to a prospect that the interpreters knew well: Without a swift escape route, they would be high-priority targets for the Taliban after the American war effort draws down.

But the channel established by Congress has been far from swift. Some applicants say they have waited years with hardly a word from the State Department.The US embassy’s visa office in Kabul has been severely understaffed, according to immigration attorneys who have worked on interpreters’ cases.

The long wait has been disheartening to thousands of men and women critical to the American mission, many of whom serve on the front lines with US troops. Since 2007, at least 80 interpreters have been killed in combat.

Until late 2011, the US Embassy in Kabul did not process a single visa under the Afghan Allies program, according to the State Department. Before then, interpreters were asked to travel to Islamabad — a precarious journey for Afghans working with the US military — to complete their applications. Even there, few visas were granted.

US officials acknowledge that the program was not prioritized in the years after its establishment.

‘‘We didn’t plan for an increase in staffing or resources . . . and there was a pent up demand,’’ said one US embassy official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

But after a slow start, US officials say they now have the resources to handle the backlog.

‘‘It’s absolutely a top priority for us now,’’ the US official said.

When the Afghan Allies program was established, members of Congress said there was urgency behind the legislation. But some officials at the US embassy in Kabul expressed concern that that program could remove from Afghanistan talented local employees at a time they were sorely needed.

‘‘This act could drain this country of our very best civilian and military partners: our Afghan employees,’’ former Ambassador Karl Eikenberry wrote in a February 2010 cable to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that was obtained a year later by the Associated Press. He went on to warn that the program could ‘‘have a significant deleterious impact on staffing and morale, as well as undermining our overall mission in Afghanistan. Local staff are not easily replenished in a society at 28 percent literacy.’’

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