Washington — Gerald Keen was deployed with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan in 2016 when he met a young man named Rahim, who served as an interpreter for Keen and United States and coalition officials during high-level meetings at their mountain outpost.
Rahim was the same age as Keen’s youngest son at the time, 24. The pair developed a deep relationship of trust and shared experiences, Keen said.
“Things that we went through on that compound — the attacks — and we survived. That right there brought us closer together as time went on,” he said. “But I got to leave. He’s still there.”
Keen, 55, of Grand Haven has since retired from the Army as a 1st sergeant. He is now pressing the Biden administration and U.S. lawmakers to secure a special immigrant visa for Rahim and his family to come to the United States before American troops withdraw from Afghanistan.
His mission feels more urgent since the timeline for that withdrawal has been moved up from September to July, according to recent reports.
If he can’t get him out, Keen fears that Rahim will join the growing number of Afghan interpreters hunted down and killed by the Taliban or other militant groups as retaliation for working with U.S. forces. The Detroit News is not using Rahim’s legal name due to safety concerns.
Rahim, now 29, said he got notice in January from Afghan security forces that he had been added to a Taliban hit list, adding that his cousin, another interpreter, was killed several weeks ago.
The father of four, who now works for an information technology contractor, fears for his safety and that of his wife and children if he’s left behind. He worked for the U.S. Army and coalition for 27 months.
“They promised us when we started working with them that ‘We’ll bring you guys to the U.S.’ — to a safe country. My wife and family, we are not safe here,” Rahim said in a call this week.
“If they leave me in Afghanistan, they will kill us. They’re not going to leave us alive.”
Veteran advocacy groups are worried that time is running out for Rahim and others like him, with a backlog of approximately 18,000 Afghans awaiting word on their applications for special immigrant visas — a troubled program plagued by processing delays and understaffing.
The visas allow Afghans and their immediate family to resettle in the United States, where they are granted lawful permanent resident status and are eligible for the same federal aid as refugees.
The State Department issued 237 of these visas to Afghan applicants in the last three months of 2020 (not including family members), which are the most recent figures available.
“We were the ones who have been supporting the U.S. Army mission, shoulder to shoulder, and fought with them on the front lines, face to face with enemies. To the U.S. government, don’t forget about us,” Rahim said. “We are tired. We are scared.”
Keen and his wife Lynnette said their hopes brightened with remarks late Wednesday by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, who said the Pentagon and State Department are working up plans “very, very rapidly” to evacuate Afghans whose work for the U.S. puts them at risk when forces depart.
“We recognize that a very important task is to ensure that we remain faithful to them, and that we do what’s necessary to ensure their protection and, if necessary, get them out of the country, if that’s what they want to do,” Milley told reporters, according to the news site DefenseOne.
“I’m not going to say the specifics of what’s on the table or off the table. Here’s what I would tell you, though: We have a moral commitment to those who helped us.”
It wasn’t immediately clear how soon the evacuations would occur, who would qualify for evacuation or where they would be taken.
Further delay, advocates argue, could have deadly consequences.
Since President Joe Biden announced in April his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, bipartisan lawmakers have upped the pressure to expedite the lengthy visa process or raise the cap on special immigrant visas for Afghans. Fewer than 11,000 visas were available at the start of the year — far short of the 18,000 pending applications.
“It’s something that we’ve raised with the administration,” said U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and later advised humanitarian groups in Afghanistan.
Meijer, a Republican from Grand Rapids Township, noted that Afghans were often working for the U.S. military on the assumption or promise that “we would look out for them.”
“To not do so both dishonors that obligation, that sacrifice, and also sets us up to have less trust in the future should we need to enlist the help of local community in the event of a future conflict,” he said.
Meijer has co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to boost the number of special immigrant visas by 4,000. U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, also said he’s looking into legislation.
“The Biden administration must not leave the Afghan interpreters who supported our men and women in uniform behind,” Huizenga said in a statement.
Keen is also working with the office of U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing.
“The State Department bureaucracy is just atrocious,” Meijer said. “It’s always dragged its feet on this across administrations.”
State Department data show that applicants for special immigrant visas wait nearly three years on average to get through a byzantine, 14-step process that includes paperwork processing, extensive security vetting, a consular officer interview and a medical exam.
Rahim has made it to step 13, which is “administrative processing,” according to information the U.S. embassy in Kabul has conveyed to congressional offices.
The Keens have been frustrated with the process. Gerald and an Army supervisor both wrote letters of recommendation for Rahim, but Lynnette said it’s been difficult to reach anyone who’s able to provide more than basic verification that the application remains pending.
“Nothing about this is easy,” she said. “I know that he’s one of 18,000. But he’s our one.”
The Keens said they are regularly in touch with Rahim and have come to consider him, his wife and children to be family, even helping to pay tuition for their daughters.
They set up a GoFundMe site to raise money for medical expenses and for flights to bring the family to Grand Haven to live when the visas come through.
“He is extremely proud of his commitment to the United States and the work of interpretation he did for the U.S.,” Lynnette said.
“He shared with us that as a child in school he learned about the U.S. military and always knew it was his goal to work with the United States on behalf of Afghanistan.”
Race against deadline
The Keens and other advocates are concerned that there there won’t be enough time to process all of the visa applications by the time the last troops leave Afghanistan. Much uncertainty surrounds the Pentagon and State Department’s developing evacuation plans.
A State Department spokesman said this week the agency is processing SIV applicants “as quickly as we possibly can,” noting that it has made process improvements and added resources to the program by boosting staff in Washington to help process applications.
The department also temporarily increased consular staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to conduct interviews and process visa in response to delays due to the embassy’s months-long closure last year due to the pandemic, the spokesman said.
After troops leave, the U.S. “will maintain a robust diplomatic presence through the U.S. Embassy, and our teams in the Consular Section in Kabul and in Washington will continue processing SIV applications as expeditiously as possible, as the security situation in Kabul allows,” the spokesman said.
Meijer said the answer might be enlisting the help of a third country as a temporary relocation point for the Afghans. In the Vietnam era, that was Guam, where the United States transported over 100,000 South Vietnamese allies in a last-minute operation.
“Whether that’s a Gulf country or something else, we need to be doing everything we can to do right by those who served alongside us and sacrificed alongside us in our conflicts,” Meijer said.
The Guam option is something that Army veteran Matt Zeller has pushed in his role as co-founder of the nonprofit group No One Left Behind, which helps Afghans gain special immigration visas and resettle in the U.S.
Guam is a good option because it’s a direct flight from Afghanistan that wouldn’t require a stop for refueling, Zeller said. It’s also a U.S. territory, so if some of the evacuees don’t ultimately qualify for a special immigrant visa, Zeller hopes that U.S. anti-torture laws would prevent them from being deported back to Afghanistan.
“This is the never-again moment in the making that we can actually prevent a genocide. Here it is,” said Zeller, adding that his Afghan interpreter saved his life in a firefight 13 years ago.
After Milley’s announcement, Zeller said he was encouraging the Biden administration not to limit who is evacuated from Afghanistan to special immigrant visa applicants. Under that criteria, for example, Afghans who who worked for the U.S. for fewer than 24 months would be excluded. That’s an arbitrary timeline, he said.
“We are pushing to get as many people on the planes as we can,” Zeller said. “The Taliban doesn’t have nearly as rigorous screening criteria when it’s deciding to kill. In the Taliban’s eyes, it doesn’t matter if you’ve served 24 months or one day.”
His organization has tracked 300 Afghan interpreters who have been killed by Taliban hit teams so far, though he said that’s likely an undercount because not all deaths are reported or can be verified.
“There is a profound moral injury that’s going to occur to our nation’s veterans if we don’t do this,” Zeller said.
He has met many Vietnam veterans who pulled him aside to share a photo of themselves standing next to their Vietnamese counterparts, he said. Those veterans told Zeller they’ve spent 50 years wondering what happened to that other person in the snapshot.
“As these people get killed, American veterans are going to be the ones who suffer,” he said. “They are going to be the ones who feel betrayed.”
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