U.S. abandons wartime allies

An Iraqi translator, middle right, helps U.S. soldiers inspect identity papers. Many Iraqis who helped U.S. forces have waited for years for U.S. visas they were promised.
An Iraqi translator, middle right, helps U.S. soldiers inspect identity papers. Many Iraqis who helped U.S. forces have waited for years for U.S. visas they were promised. AP

Why would anyone in the Middle East want to ally with the United States? The United States has let down thousands of Afghans and Iraqis whose lives are at risk because they have worked with Americans.

I have written of the long delays in issuing special visas for Iraqi and Afghan translators who worked with U.S. military and civilian officials. The whole process can drag on for as much as five years, say staffers at the International Refugee Assistance Project, a part of the Urban Justice Project. One prime reason: There aren’t enough personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to handle the thousands of applicants.

The story of Ali — whose family I have known for years — illustrates the brutal retaliation that can befall these Iraqis while their applications are in limbo. It makes one wonder why anyone would be foolish enough to assist Americans again.

Ali’s life is in danger because his brother Salam helped the U.S. military and worked with U.S. journalists. Salam was my fixer, translator and driver during many trips to Baghdad between 2003 and 2008.

During the brutal civil war years of 2005 to 2007, radical Shiite militiamen known as the Mahdi Army began murdering many of Salam’s Sunni neighbors and driving the rest from the neighborhood. The same militia was also killing U.S. soldiers.

Salam was infuriated by the sectarian slaughter and tipped off officers at a U.S. forward operating base in his neighborhood about who was doing the killing, leading to the arrest of local militia members. He also brought me to the neighborhood to write about the militia murders.

When U.S. troops withdrew from Baghdad and the base in Salam’s neighborhood shut down, Salam and his family paid a terrible price.

The Shiite militia he had fingered — which had contacts inside the Iraqi army — ensured that Salam was arrested by the military and tortured. While he was in jail, the militiamen gunned down one of his brothers and a cousin. After his release, he received multiple death threats and had to flee Iraq, crossing by leaky boat from Turkey to Cyprus.

In Baghdad, Shiite militiamen were emboldened by the chaos and sought further revenge. In June, Mahdi Army goons scrawled graffiti on Salam’s Baghdad house, calling him an “American spy,” and threatened to kill more family members.

Ali had to go into hiding, changing location frequently, while his wife and children moved in with relatives. In desperation, he applied in August for entry into the United States under the direct access program; he and his family were eligible because Salam had worked for a U.S. newspaper. (Salam’s help to the U.S. military, verified by three Army officers, didn’t help because he did it for free.)

Here is where the story really gets maddening. Ali knew he might have to wait up to two years for security checks in a Kafkaesque process. But he never imagined that he might wait indefinitely just to enter the queue.

The DAP process requires verification of employment and two interviews at the U.S. Embassy before security checks even begin. But in June 2014, after the Islamic State seized Mosul and threatened Baghdad, nonessential embassy personnel were evacuated, slashing the number working on refugee processing and halting the process for 10 months.

There is now a backlog of 60,000 applicants and family members.

It took six months for the DAP process just to verify Ali’s employment, and he has yet to be called for his first interview. His parents’ house has been attacked with a grenade. He is fearful that he will be killed before the first interview is held.

Salam, worried sick in Cyprus that his brother will be murdered, has had a heart attack.

Ali and Salam find it nearly impossible to understand bureaucratic explanations. In language I’ve heard repeatedly from stranded Iraqi and Afghan translators, the brothers wonder why U.S. officials have abandoned the people who helped them.

How can we expect loyalty from our allies in the future if we treat our current ones so shabbily or even leave them to die?

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

©2016 Trudy Rubin