False Promises: How We Are Failing Our Afghan Allies

04/08/2015 12:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015

Sharif* was ten years old when U.S. troops drove the Taliban from his hometown, Kabul. Ten years later, he was working in Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban and a hotbed of insurgent activity in Afghanistan. He interpreted for U.S. military advisors, training the Afghan Air Force. Sharif faced the same dangers that his American colleagues faced -- gunfire, mortar rounds, and IEDs. One of Sharif's friends, who is now in the United States, was stabbed several times in Afghanistan for his work with U.S. forces. But unlike many soldiers who Sharif worked with who are now safely home, Sharif cannot return home because the Taliban have threatened to kill him for his association with the United States. Moreover, the program that Congress created to protect Afghans like Sharif who provided faithful and valuable service to the. government -- the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program -- has been a failure.

Sharif had been working for nearly two years when he received approval from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to apply for an SIV on March 10, 2013. During the summer of 2013, Sharif was visiting his family when his father was threatened for the family's association with American forces. Sharif rearranged his travel plans and went into hiding for several days to ensure his and his family's safety. As a result, Sharif overstayed his allotted period of work leave by two days. Despite informing his supervisors of his security concerns and travel plans in advance, Sharif was terminated from his employment by Mission Essential Personnel (MEP), a private contractor that provides the U.S. military with linguists in Afghanistan.

MEP updated Sharif's personnel file to state that he had been terminated for "job abandonment," disregarding that his life was in imminent danger and that he had dutifully informed his supervisors that he was in hiding prior to missing work. Worse still, Embassy Kabul revoked his approval to apply for an SIV on August 9, 2013, relying on MEP's context-free description of "job abandonment," notwithstanding the fact that he had worked with American forces for over two years and had been recommended for an SIV by his military supervisors.

Sharif's situation is not a unique incident of injustice or even an extreme example of miscommunication. Rather, his situation mirrors that of many Afghans who have applied for SIVs only to be denied for illogical reasons. MEP's practice has been to use the formulaic description "job abandonment" to refer to virtually any instance where an employee loses his job. The underlying circumstances of the termination, which could provide valuable context, are not included in the employee's file. If the words "job abandonment" appear on an applicant's employment verification letter from MEP, it is absolutely fatal to his SIV application -- no matter the number of years an Afghan has worked for the U.S. government or the number of recommendations he has received from military supervisors.

Another interpreter, Farooq*, was between assignments when his mother fell gravely ill and needed a temporary caretaker. When Farooq explained that he could not return to work until after his mother was well, MEP terminated him -- not for family reasons or for voluntary departure, but for "job abandonment." He had never expressed an intention to abandon his job and even attempted to return after his mother recovered about one month later.

At the time he applied for an SIV, Farooq had four letters of recommendation from his military supervisors. One U.S. Army Lieutenant had been so impressed with Farooq's work that he wrote an additional letter promising to provide Farooq with financial assistance until he was gainfully employed in the United States. Farooq was ultimately denied an SIV because of "job abandonment," despite the strong recommendations from his military supervisors. Essentially the U.S. Department of State (DOS) determined that his supervisors' opinions were less valuable than MEP's assertion that Farooq had abandoned his job -- with absolutely no context provided about why he was unable to return to work.

The practice of MEP and the U.S. government to deem even the most sympathetic and reasonable circumstances "job abandonment" and to deny Afghans SIVs -- their only opportunity for safety in America -- on this basis is bad policy and bad judgment. The term "job abandonment" should be reserved for those situations where an employee disappears while on duty or fails to inform his employer that he is not returning to his position. MEP must adopt new standards for its personnel records and include the specific details of why an employee left or was terminated. Additionally, in order to deny an application on "job abandonment" grounds, DOS should require specific facts regarding an employee's termination. Otherwise, Farooq, Sharif, and our other Afghan Allies who we promised to protect will continue to live in fear, and our government will continue to abdicate its responsibility to them.

*Please note that the asterisk next to the names, indicates the name has been changed to protect the identity of the translators due to ongoing threats against their lives.