Army Capt. Matt Zeller had been told that his Afghan comrades would make a big show of hospitality. He'd read that the Afghan code of honor would mean protecting his life with their own. Sure enough, that's what his interpreter, Janis Shinwari, pledged to him when they met in April of 2008.
"I expected him to say it. I didn't think he'd make good on his promise within two weeks of my arrival," Zeller says. "Literally pick up a weapon and ... save my life," says Zeller.
Now, Zeller says he's got to repay the favor in kind. Three years later, Shinwari is still back in Afghanistan, marked for death by Taliban insurgents, and waiting for a U.S. visa.
American troops are gone from Iraq and leaving Afghanistan, but thousands who served with the American military are still left behind. Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who patrolled, and sometimes fought, beside U.S. forces risk retaliation when those forces leave. Congress passed laws to grant visas to people who helped American forces, but the process has been slow. It's often fallen to the troops that fought alongside them to press the case.
Taking A Risk
On April 28, 2008, Zeller was on patrol in Ghazni Province, near a village controlled by the Taliban. Using outdated maps, the convoy got directed by a local farmer down the wrong road and into a Taliban ambush.
A bomb buried under the roadway disabled one of the MRAP vehicles — a heavily armored, mine-resistant truck. Some time later, Taliban insurgents started firing rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikovs at the stranded Americans.
"We were taking fire from ... the periphery of this village. We were pinned down in the middle of this field," Zeller says.
Zeller says the Taliban rockets kept getting closer.
"It was the worst firefight of my life," he says. "I ran out of grenades. I was literally counting my bullets, and I remember thinking, we might not make it out of this one alive."
Shinwari was back at the base and came out to help with a quick reaction force. As an interpreter, it wasn't his job to fight, but Shinwari carried an assault rifle anyway.
"I grabbed my weapon and started shooting back at the Taliban. And I went close to Zeller. We were the front line," Shinwari says.
Zeller was focusing on a ridge line when he heard shooting behind him.
"Somebody yelled, 'Zeller!' and I turned and I saw Janis shoot a guy. There was a guy rushing up to attack me and Janis shot him, saving my life," Zeller says.
From that point on, they considered themselves brothers. When it came time for Zeller to go home, he promised Shinwari that he'd get him to the United States.
That shouldn't have been such a tall order; the American military has offered a deal, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, for locals who work with the military. The Special Immigrant Visa Program is designed to grant them visas, especially for those put in danger because they helped the U.S., like Shinwari.
"I was involved in detaining over 200 Taliban. And in that time I didn't cover my face. They all know me by name," he says.
Shinwari got threatening phone calls and letters, and he can't return to his home village because the Taliban operate nearby. Shinwari applied for a visa in 2011, and heard nothing for two years.
That's not unusual. Figures through 2012 show that the State Department has granted only 12 percent of the visas allocated for Afghans, and only 22 percent of the visas allocated for Iraqis.
Fighting The Red Tape
Meanwhile, Zeller was back in the U.S. He and his wife had a daughter, and Zeller says that neither he nor his daughter would be around if it weren't for Shinwari's bravery in combat.
When Shinwari wrote to tell him that the U.S. base he works at was shutting down by the end of the year, Zeller went on something of a crusade. He got members of Congress to write the embassy in Kabul, and launched a media campaign.
"It's not acceptable. He's earned this more than most people have earned their citizenship [in] this country," Zeller says.
Last month, Shinwari got a call to come collect visas for him, his wife and his son and daughter.
Shinwari quit his job at the U.S. base, sold his house and followed the embassy instructions about registering for travel. Then on Sept. 21, he got another call from the embassy. His visa had been revoked and is back under review.
The State Department told Zeller that entry visas are "national security decisions." Zeller suspects the Taliban saw some of the news coverage about Shinwari, and then made an anonymous call to the U.S. embassy, denouncing him.
Zeller says it's now more important than ever to get Shinwari and his family out.
"The only other option is he dies. And then what? What am I supposed to say to my daughter?" he says. "What am I supposed to say to any other ally that I work with in the future, because I'm still an Army officer. And then what good is our word?"
Zeller is ramping up his campaign again, reaching out to Congress and the media.
Janis Shinwari has gone into hiding in Afghanistan.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
American troops are gone from Iraq and they are leaving Afghanistan, but thousands who served with the American military are still left behind. Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who patrolled and sometimes fought beside U.S. forces risk retaliation when those forces leave. Congress passed laws to grant U.S. visas to these allies, but the process is slow. Often the strongest advocates for these interpreters are the troops they worked with. NPR's Quil Lawrence has the story of one soldier's effort to help his interpreter. Quil spoke with Army Captain Matt Zeller here in Washington, and he reached the translator, Janis Shinwari, in Kabul, Afghanistan.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Matt Zeller served in 2008 on a remote base in eastern Afghanistan. His translator, Janis Shinwari, was his window to the world outside the wire.
CAPTAIN MATT ZELLER: One of the first thing he said to me is he said you are a guest in my country and I am now honor-bound. I'm obligated to make sure that you go home safely.
JANIS SHINWARI: And I told Zeller you are part of our mission and our job to protect you guys in our country.
ZELLER: I was like, OK, yeah. They had told us that that was the Afghan code of honor. I had expected, you know, them to say it. I didn't actually think he would make good on his promise within two weeks of my arrival.
LAWRENCE: On April 28, 2008, Zeller was on a patrol near a village controlled by the Taliban. They got directed by a local farmer down the wrong road into a trap. Janis Shinwari was back at base. He heard what happened on the radio.
SHINWARI: Their unit were on a mission and on the way back their one truck was hit by an IED and the second truck was hit by an RPG. And they were ambushed by Taliban.
ZELLER: We were taking fire from the village itself, the periphery of this village. We had no cover, no concealment. We were pinned down literally in the middle of this field.
SHINWARI: Me with three more trucks, we went to risk to support our team, which under the ambush of Taliban.
ZELLER: It was the worst firefight of my life. I ran out of grenades. I was literally counting my bullets. And I remember thinking, OK, this is it. We might not make it out of this one alive.
SHINWARI: First thing I did, I grabbed my weapon and I start shooting back at the Taliban. And I went close to Zeller.
ZELLER: And at that point somebody yelled Zeller, and I turned and I saw Janis shoot a guy. There was a guy rushing up to attack me and Janis shot him, saving my life.
SHINWARI: From that time, Zeller became one of my best, best friend, that even we call each other brother.
LAWRENCE: Matt Zeller finished his tour and went home. He and his wife are raising a baby daughter. Before he left, he promised to get Janis Shinwari to America. Congress set up a program for translators just like Shinwari, people the Taliban have marked as traitors.
SHINWARI: I was involved in the detaining of over 200 Taliban, and in that time I didn't cover my face. They all knew me by name, and I was getting a lot of phone calls from the Taliban that the one who is working for the American, they are traitor of Islam.
LAWRENCE: Shinwari applied for a U.S. visa in 2011. He heard nothing. That's typical. Through 2012, the U.S. government granted only about a thousand visas to Afghans under the program. That's about a tenth of the number they could have issued.
ZELLER: Two years is just - it's not acceptable. He's earned this, more than most people have earned their citizenship in this country.
LAWRENCE: Zeller went on something of a crusade. He got members of Congress to write the embassy in Kabul and launched a media campaign. Last month, Janis Shinwari got a call to come collect visas for his whole family.
SHINWARI: I have a son who is four years old, and I have a daughter; she is two years old. I want my son and daughter to be educated. That's why I'm trying to leave Afghanistan and I'm trying to go to the United States.
LAWRENCE: Shinwari quit his job at the U.S. base, sold his house and followed the embassy instructions about registering for travel. Then this past Saturday he got another call from the embassy: his visa had been revoked and is back under review. The State Department told Zeller that entry visas are national security decisions. Matt Zeller says he thinks the Taliban made an anonymous call to the U.S. embassy denouncing Shinwari. He says it's now more important than ever to get Shinwari and his family out.
ZELLER: The other option is he dies, and then what? How do you - what am I supposed to say to my daughter? What am I supposed to say to any other ally that I ever work with in the future if I'm still an Army officer? What do I say? At that point we failed him. We didn't live up to our promise. And then what good is our word?
LAWRENCE: Zeller is back pushing the case with his congressman and the media. Janis Shinwari has gone into hiding in Afghanistan.
GREENE: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence reporting, and Quil has come into the studio to talk a bit more about this. And Quil, I'm just struck by the fragility of this. I know we're just speculating, but it's possible that the Taliban might have called in something that gave the U.S. government enough concern about this translator that it might have delayed his getting a visa and getting to the United States.
LAWRENCE: Yeah, and it's striking. I mean, this is someone who has been working alongside Americans for years. And presumably if he had wanted to harm Americans, he had plenty of opportunities.
GREENE: Well, we're dealing with two different laws here that authorized visas, one for Iraq, one for Afghanistan. And the one helping Iraqis to make it to the United States is expiring next week, really soon.
LAWRENCE: Right. The Afghan program expires next year, but the special immigrant visa program for Iraqis will expire with the end of this fiscal year - that's next Monday. And that's despite bipartisan support for it in the past. U.S. forces have left Iraq but there are still thousands of Iraqis waiting to get out and Iraq is getting less safe. As we mentioned, the peace troops back here at home have been pushing really hard on this. So there's a worry that it's media pressure or intervention that's getting these visas through, not the official process.
GREENE: Well, Quil, if there is such bipartisan support for these laws in Congress, why are so few visas being issued?
LAWRENCE: It's hard to say. It's not a very transparent process. Advocates say that it gets lost somewhere when the application gets to Washington. And they don't even know where to apply pressure, whether it's State Department or Homeland Security. And they complain that the bureaucrats in Washington, well, naturally, don't know much about life in Afghanistan or Iraq for people who have been marked as American collaborators. A State Department official told me the process is speeding up. But different ambassadors have put the brakes on the program for fear of creating a brain drain, or they've pushed to make it work faster. I should say, I've worked as NPR bureau chief in both Baghdad and Kabul. We've employed folks in these situations, tried to help every way we could think of. Some have gotten visas, others have been waiting for years.
GREENE: And I suppose the situation could get harder for people applying for these visas if these laws expire. I mean, as you said, the Iraq law next week; the Afghan one next year - what happens if these laws are not renewed?
LAWRENCE: It's hard to predict, given what this Congress is dealing with, when or if the laws are going to get renewed. A State Department official declined to speculate about it. Advocates who are trying to help these Iraqis and Afghans are afraid that even a temporary lull in the process could jam up the gears even more. In Iraq, security has been getting worse, not better, for over a year. People who worked with Americans are still marked by death squads. Several Iraqis have died waiting for the visas that American soldiers promised them they would get.
GREENE: All right. We've been talking to NPR's Quil Lawrence. Quil, thanks a lot.
LAWRENCE: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.