The interpreters who say they have been left for dead in Afghanistan as U.S. and U.K. troops pull out after 20-year war

A soldier walks with his arm older the shoulder of his interpreter
A U.S. soldier walks with the unit’s Afghan interpreter in Laghman province in 2014.

  • Thousands of Afghans signed on to work with U.S. forces during the 20-year war, including many who risked their lives and being branded as traitors.
  • As the U.S. withdraws the last of its troops, thousands of Afghan interpreters say they fear for their lives.
  • Some war-time interpreters say they have been blocked from seeking asylum even though they face reprisals from the Taliban.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Aazar had just turned 18 back in 2013, when he signed up to work with Western forces in Afghanistan, perhaps not fully understanding that it would place a clear target on his back.

For 11 months, Aazar – a pseudonym we are using to protect his identity – worked as an interpreter for U.K. troops in Helmand Province. But when he later sought asylum, believing he could fall prey to a vengeful Taliban that saw interpreters as traitors, Aazar learned he was ineligible because the asylum threshold required that Afghan interpreters had worked for at least one year. Aazar fell shy of that by a single month.

He managed to find refuge in New Delhi, India, but he still holds out hope of getting to the U.K. He says the asylum rule is arbitrary and unfair. “If I work one day, [the Taliban] will cut my head,” Aazar said in an interview. “If I work 10 years, they will cut my head.”

Since the start of the US-led war two decades ago, the Taliban has targeted anyone it sees as “stooges” or collaborators. People like Aazar.

Now, as the last American and Western troops withdraw from Afghanistan – President Joe Biden set a deadline of Sept. 11 – Afghanistan’s security forces will soon be on their own.

Taliban fighters have meanwhile taken almost 20 districts over the past two weeks and staged increasingly audacious attacks across the country. A spate of targeted assassinations have killed dozens of journalists, rights workers, academics, religious leaders and other prominent figures over the last year. The majority of these attacks have gone unclaimed, but the Kabul government believes the Taliban are behind most, if not all, of these killings.

Prince Harry, seen in the Afghan desert, points his arm as three men look on.
Prince Harry speaks with two men in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in 2008 with the help of an Afghan interpreter.

Interpreters fear that they could fall victim to such killings, and the effort to evacuate Locally Employed Staff, or LECs, who worked with foreign forces, has grown increasingly desperate.

In an unusual statement released earlier this month, the Taliban said that Afghans who had committed “treason against Islam and the country” would be left alone as long as they express remorse, and could “return to their normal lives.”

Sayed Jalal Shajjan, a Kabul-based researcher who has been studying the fate of Afghans who worked with foreign forces, says the statement will do little to reassure any of the Afghans who fear for their lives. “It’s not a clear statement. It just further problematizes everything. How exactly should someone show remorse, whom should they approach, and how would they provide adequate proof? A statement alone is not a guarantee.”

On June 4, a bipartisan group of US representatives, many of them veterans, sent a letter to President Biden, calling for the immediate evacuation of all Afghans who worked with American forces to the US territory of Guam, where their asylum applications could be processed in safety.

“If we fail to protect our allies in Afghanistan, it will have a lasting impact on our future partnerships and global reputation,” the letter concluded.

Around 10 men hold signs about the safety of Afghan interpreters in front of the U.S. embassy
Former Afghan interpreters protest in front of the U.S. embassy in Kabul on June 25, 2021.

Earlier this week, Biden said, “Those [Afghans] who helped us are not going to be left behind,” but offered few details as to how he would evacuate thousands of people in a two-and-a-half month period.

In April, the British government introduced a new policy making it much quicker, and easier, for former interpreters to claim asylum. But, again, not everyone is eligible.

Similar cracks exist in the US asylum scheme. Only Afghans who served with American forces for at least two years can apply, leaving many out in the cold.

Last month, a number of global charities, led by the International Refugee Assistance project, released a joint statement. “With the ongoing withdrawal, NATO member states must act urgently to guarantee the safety of present and past Afghan locally engaged civilians,” it read. “Time is running out.”

Time, is of course not on their side. As Shajjan, the researcher, points out, the process of vetting and physically evacuating people usually takes up to nine months.

“That amount of time is no longer feasible.”

“Was he working with the infidels?”

Afghanistan has been plagued by conflict since the communist coup d’etat of 1978. Four decades of war and violence have left a permanent imprint of millions of Afghans who, like Aazar, were born into war.

By 2001, the country, and its citizens had already seen a communist coup, Soviet occupation, a jihad, civil war and five years of Taliban rule. Then, just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a coalition of 40 nations, including the UK, Germany and Australia, invaded the country to topple the Taliban, whom they accused of harboring Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born leader of al-Qaeda.

A soldier, accompanied by an interpreter, speaks to a number of men, seated on the ground.
With the help of an interpreter, a U.S. soldier in 2002 speaks to locals about hidden weapons and equipment left by the Taliban.

In 2014, the vast majority of foreign forces withdrew from the country and those that remained moved from a combat role to an advisory one. Since then, more than 26,000 Afghans, and their families, have been granted asylum in the US. But at least 18,000 LECs who worked with the Americans remain in Afghanistan.

The group No One Left Behind says it over 300 interpreters and their family members have been killed because they worked with U.S. forces.

It was around that time that Aazar managed to leave the country.

While still in Helmand Province, he got worrying news from his father back home in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. A distant cousin, who was believed to be linked to the Taliban, visited the family home, claiming he had seen Aazar on the frontline. “He came to my father, and he was asking, where is your son?” Aazar recalled. “Is he alive or dead? Was he working with the infidels?”

Fearing for his life and that of his family, Aazar resigned his post with the U.K. forces and returned to Kabul, where he worked briefly as an English teacher. “I was very afraid,” he said. “I would not go directly to my home. I would change my way. I would be looking back to see if they were following me.”

Soldiers kneel with guns drawn while an elderly Afghan men speaks to a US soldier and his interpreter.
An elderly man is questioned through an interpreter by US soldiers during a morning operation in 2012.

After a close friend who had worked as an interpreter was found dead, Aazar said he fled the country.

Shajjan, the Kabul-based researcher, says people like Aazar, most of whom were young men trying to provide money for their families, are easily identifiable by the Taliban.

“It’s the nature of their work, they are the ones standing next to the foreign troops and telling them everything that’s being said. They are highly visible and extremely vulnerable,” said Shajjan.

Adding to the dangers is the fact that these translators were also present – though their faces were concealed with masks – during the highly controversial night raids into people’s homes and the interrogations conducted by foreign forces.

“All these activities on behalf of the foreign forces made them easily recognizable to people in the community and even easier to pick out and track by the Taliban,” Shajjan said.

“Falling through the cracks”

As a Muslim refugee in India, Aazar’s position has been precarious, even desperate.

Before the pandemic hit, Aazar was working 18 hours a day in a restaurant, sometimes sleeping on tables between shifts. He says he is often underpaid for his work but he has no one to complain to. To Aazar, it all seems like a pitiful reward for his frontline service.

“I’m not blaming the Indian people,” he says. “But it’s very hard… You can’t even get a home, landlords won’t rent to you, because you are a refugee… you can’t get jobs, because you are a refugee.”

An Afghan man, wearing white, speaks to a crowd of US soldiers
Village elders speak with a U.S. Marine through an interpreter in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan in 2008.

“I haven’t seen my family – my father, brother, mother, sister – in eight years,” he said.

In the meantime, he is getting support from the Sulha Alliance, a group founded by U.K. veterans of the Afghan war. Its representatives confirmed elements of Aazar’s story.

Dr. Sara de Jong, a professor of politics at the University of York and one of the group’s founding members, said too many LECs have “fallen through the cracks of the relocation policy.”

“The fact that the government failed to have an appropriate policy in place earlier cannot be a reason to exclude these guys,” she said.

But Aazar could be one of the lucky ones.

Farwan – also a pseudonym – is another LEC working with the Sulha Alliance, and he is still in Afghanistan. “I cannot go outside,” he said in an interview, “because if I go outside, I will be targeted by my tribe, targeted by the Taliban; I will be killed.” His voice is half a whisper over the phone.

Farwan was also working in Helmand, and he was dismissed from the military for fighting with a fellow translator. Because of this disciplinary breach he’s not able to claim asylum in the UK.

A helicopter flies overhead as soldiers run with their full gear in the desert.
U.S. and Afghan soldiers during an operation in Paktika province in 2012.

“I was an interpreter in a patrol base,” he says “I had a fight, one fight, with the other interpreter… then they told me my contract was terminated.”

Last month, near his home in Laghman Province, in eastern Afghanistan, the Afghan National Security Forces managed to repel an attack by the Taliban, and Farwan said he lost his property.

The threats that sparked the war in Afghanistan remain, but methods of dealing with them have changed. Increasingly, the U.S. and other countries rely on local forces to combat extremists, instead helping to train and arm them. In Iraq and Syria, for example, troops from across the world trained local forces to fight the Islamic State.

But without relocation policies in place, the plight of local staff in Afghanistan is showing that working with the international community can have dire consequences.

“These are guys who have had to put bits of people in body bags,” Dr. de Jong said. “We also need to ensure that these people can build up a meaningful life. It’s not just about staying alive. It’s about the right to a life.”

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