Risks for those left behind in Afghanistan
As coalition foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan, they are leaving behind a vulnerable band of people who were their ears and eyes on the ground.
Those who served as guides, interpreters or even just labourers face a life of threats and uncertainties. Many have already been killed.
Increasingly, NGOs and advocacy groups are calling for international recognition of these interpreters’ contributions and their rights to safety and sanctuary.
“Leaving them behind is, in many cases, a death sentence,” said former Afghan humanitarian worker Obaidullah Mehak.
“They should be granted asylum by the countries they served in Afghanistan,” he said.
In March, Australia granted 800 visas to interpreters and their families and 280 Afghans are being settled in Newcastle.
But Mr Mehak says there are hundreds more people left behind and at risk.
“There are other people who worked for the Australians and even the extended families of those interpreters who have been settled here. They are all at risk because when the coalition moves out, the Taliban will move back in,” he said.
The civilian interpreters being settled in Australia were involved in all aspects of the war in Afghanistan, from raids to meetings of regional chiefs.
Afghanistan veteran and military fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, James Brown, says the interpreters offered critical support to Australian troops.
“They were able to effectively allow our forces to communicate with Afghan civilians, police, the army – they’ve been involved in every part of what the Defence Force has done in Uruzgan,” he said.
“I’m very much in favour of giving these interpreters a safe place to raise their families, thanking them for the dangerous work they did and making sure that they’ll have ongoing connections to the Australian Defence Force as well.
“I think that’s particularly important now that we’ve brought them back to live in Australia,” Mr Brown said.
But Mr Mehak says the resettled interpreters face challenges including finding long-term accommodation, jobs and pursuing education opportunities.
Between 2007 and 2009, Military Essential Personnel, a U.S. defence contractor, confirmed a death toll of 30 interpreters in 30 months. In Iraq, British forces lost 21 interpreters over a 21-day period.
Many more have been injured and have suffered life threats and persecution.
Noor Ahmad Noori, 29, an Afghan interpreter who worked formerly for The New York Times in Afghanistan, is among the latest casualties in a long trail of bloodshed among interpreters.
He was abducted and later found beaten and stabbed to death near Lashkar Gah, a Taliban stronghold, in January.
Another interpreter Jawad Wafa, who worked as an interpreter for the German army in Afghanistan and within the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was found strangled in the boot of a parked vehicle in November last year.
His death came a month after the German armed forces’ withdrawal and despite repeated threats he faced, and an entitlement to protective asylum, his documents were not expedited in time.
In 2008, Matt Zeller, a US army captain was saved by Janis Shinwari, his interpreter who shot Taliban snipers just before they could pull the trigger on Zeller. When his name ended up on a Taliban death list, he was swiftly given a US visa thanks to Zeller’s efforts.
A year later the U.S. Congress passed the 2009 Afghan Allies Protection Act, which made 7,500 visas available to Afghan employees – mainly translators and interpreters.