The Friends We Left Behind
Credit: Courtesy Matt Zeller

They fanned out, facing the ridge, and waited to get shot. The eight National Guardsmen lay as flat as they could in the open creek while the dirt beside them jumped with machine-gun rounds. There were 45 Taliban blazing away above them, firing from two emplacements on the hill in Wahgez, a lawless, black-route district in southern Afghanistan. Still dazed by the rocket that pierced his "bomb resistant" truck and launched this hour-old ambush, First Lieutenant Matt Zeller was low on ammo and dropping in and out of consciousness. Twice he'd been rocked by mortar strikes while shooting at a gunner on the hill. The last one had knocked him back behind a grave, where he braced for the round that would cut him in half. "April 28, 2008," he thought. "This is the day that I die."

Suddenly, he saw a convoy roar up to a halt. The cavalry – a Quick Reaction Force from his base – began sawing open the tree line with high explosives. Zeller took to returning fire when the crack! of a rifle went off past his ear. He looked up to find Janis Shinwari, an Afghan interpreter assigned to Zeller's National Guard unit, crouched beside him, shooting in the other direction. "Two Taliban had rounded a corner and were right behind me; another second and they'd have shot me in the back," says Zeller. But Shinwari, who'd arrived with the QRF squad, calmly emptied his clip, killing them both, then dragged Zeller from the kill zone to the trucks.

Hours later, having towed the vehicles back to base and gotten medical care for his wounded, Zeller sat up drinking chai with Shinwari, a tall, sloe-eyed Pashtun with heraldic cheekbones and a deep-well air of calm. Though they shared the same quarters in Forward Operating Base Vulcan, they'd barely been introduced during Zeller's fortnight in-country, and now Zeller needed to know this man who'd saved his life. "Why," asked Zeller, "are you on our side and not theirs?"

"Because you are my guest here," said Shinwari. "You come so many miles to help my family; I am honor-bound to protect you, brother."

There was more to it, of course, but that was plenty for Zeller. The lead intel officer on the tiny base, he pulled rank the next day and had Shinwari assigned to his team of tactical advisers. For the next seven months, they were inseparable, riding shotgun with the Afghan army through explosions and ambushed missions. Shinwari, who'd taught himself English as a teen by watching Arnold Schwarzenegger mangle his lines in Terminator and Commando, wasn't just the smartest linguist on base – he was also the best marksman. "He could shoot the cap off a pen at 800 meters," says Zeller. "He saved at least five American lives there, not just mine." That December, when his hitch was up, Zeller gave Shinwari a powerful hug and an open-ended offer to bring him to America if things got too hot for him and his family. "Thanks, but I'm staying," said Shinwari. "I don't scare from the Taliban; they scare from me."

A couple of years passed; the two men kept in touch via Skype and Facebook chats. Then, in February 2011, Shinwari texted Zeller to redeem his offer of help. After five years of Taliban death threats, he'd been marked for death in a plot U.S. intelligence officers had intercepted. He stashed his wife and two kids with in-laws and went to live on-base while still working as an interpreter, but then word leaked that Allied forces were leaving, closing bases and laying off the many thousands who'd helped them – Afghan linguists and drivers and political fixers, all of whom had risked their lives for the vision marketed by U.S. leaders of a free and decent Afghanistan. Zeller knew what this augured for the collaborators left behind; he'd seen the severed limbs of captured allies left in burlap at the gate of his base, wrapped in warnings to repent before Allah.

Zeller, by then a captain in the Army Reserve and running for Congress in upstate New York, launched an all-points drive to bring Shinwari over on a special immigrant visa (SIV). He compiled 50 letters of recommendation from officers who'd served with Shinwari, documented and validated every death threat texted to Shinwari or slipped under his door, and followed up with letters and calls to the embassy in Kabul. "I figured he'd sail through in six to nine months," says Zeller. "He'd been vetted by the CIA since '06, and oh, by the way, he's a hero."

But the months turned to years of brick-wall delays, with no word from the State Department or Homeland Security. Zeller, like Shinwari, began to panic. He wrote an anguished op-ed for the Huffington Post, then another for the Guardian online. That fetched him a slew of follow-up coverage, and suddenly congressmen called the embassy, threatening to hold hearings. Meanwhile, Shinwari lived in mounting terror, moving himself and his family every few days to outflank the men with knives and beards who pounded on his in-laws' door.

Finally, after a 30-month, one-man barrage, Zeller's pressure won Shinwari a visa. He quit his job as an interpreter, sold his worldly goods, and hid out with his wife and kids while the final arrangements were made for them to come to the U.S. Then, a few days before their tickets came through, he was told over the phone – without a word of explanation – to hand back his hard-won visa. Heartsick, he called Zeller, who called the embassy in Kabul. Nothing; all hope extinguished. And with that, the two learned what political exiles have known since our withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973: When it comes to keeping a promise to wartime allies, America's word is flimsy at best.