The Friends We Left Behind
Credit: Courtesy Matt Zeller
In each of our foreign conflicts over the past half-century, America has staged withdrawals of its troops, tanks, and spies from bases of operation overseas but disastrously failed to plan for the dangers its abandoned allies would face after we left. In Saigon and Laos, we'd no sooner departed than the horrors began. Hundreds of thousands dead in South Vietnam, either killed in work camps or on the South China Sea aboard leaky refugee boats. In Laos, Hmong tribesmen who'd stood with us were slaughtered by the many thousands at the hands of Vietcong invaders. Eventually, the mass drownings and the sheer number of Amerasian offspring forced Congress to enter the fray, ordering airlifts of Indochinese exiles to resettlement camps in Guam, and passing laws conferring special immigrant status on the Vietnamese progeny of U.S. soldiers. "We took in more than 200,000 people with Amerasian visas – there was a strong sense of moral obligation," says Becca Heller, the 30-year-old director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, a group of young, influential lawyers who intervene on behalf of political exiles, most of them from Iraq and Afghanistan. "That created a path for people who can't get regular visas but to whom we felt a humanitarian duty."

Our collective sense of shame, however late, redressed a grievous wrong in Vietnam. But you can't feel shame for wars you have little stake in, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, we've waged armed conflict largely out of sight of the American public. Nightly coverage from the theater has dwindled close to zero, troops have been mustered from a sliver of the working poor, and the pain has been localized to those who fought there, their spouses, and their parents. "These wars will be the millennials' Korea – they'll go down as a joint footnote in school textbooks," says Kirk Johnson, the founding director of the List Project, which, like the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Program, has used its shoestring budget to rescue at-risk exiles, many of them interpreters, from Iraq. An ex-Fulbright scholar and civilian aide in Fallujah whose harrowing memoir, To Be a Friend Is Fatal, was published to acclaim last summer, Johnson began the List Project after an Iraqi co-worker was targeted for assassination by Al Qaeda. Johnson wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, urging that steps be taken to protect his friend; almost instantly, he was inundated with frantic emails from Iraqis in similar straits.

Johnson built a spreadsheet of their names and stories and delivered it to the U.S. State Department. Wider attention followed, and soon the pleas of Iraqis were joined by those from U.S. soldiers, begging him to save their beloved interpreters. "It's impossible to overstate the bond you form in combat; it's the strongest kind of friendship you'll ever make," says Marc Chretien, a veteran diplomat who, until recently, was the chief U.S. civilian adviser to the commanding general in Afghanistan; for two years, he traveled the mined roads of Helmand Province with the Marines and their Afghan guides. "Your interpreter and your driver become your foxhole buddies, as close as – or even closer than – your siblings."

Quickly, Johnson's List grew to thousands of names, and his campaign lit a fire under Congress. At the height of the Iraq surge in 2007, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon, authored a bill to reboot the Amerasian exception. It proposed 5,000 SIV slots a year for Iraqis who'd risked their lives to aid Americans and could prove it to, first, our consular officers in Baghdad, then to security-clearance clerks in the intelligence community. "A veteran in my district was trying to get his interpreter out, and told me it would've been easier for his family to adopt the guy than get him cleared by the State Department," says Blumenauer. His legislation, which passed with wide support in 2008, required the administration to admit 25,000 Iraqis over the five-year life of the program, as well as their wives, children, and extended families. The following year, the Afghan measure passed, creating 8,750 visas over five years, though it restricted eligibility to just the refugees' spouses and their school-age children.

Both bills were imperfect, if born of best intentions. There was no help for Iraqis who had risked their lives assisting U.S. media or relief agencies like USAID. And in Afghanistan, which became the more lethal war by early 2008, it sorely undercounted the number of allies who landed on Taliban death lists. Still, the laws were progress on, of all things, immigration in the most isolationist Congress in modern memory. Moreover, they were a matter of national security. As the wars slogged on and America eyed the exits, it became harder to recruit bilingual locals without a legal means to extract them later.

But someone forgot to impress that upon the officers at our embassies and their counterparts in the defense establishment. They grudgingly passed through a trickle of cases, and either slow-walked the others for months or years or dismissed them out of hand for spurious reasons. Just 15 percent of the Iraqi slots were granted in the first four years, or about 3,000 of the 25,000 open. In Afghanistan, the figure was unfathomably low: Only a handful of visas a year came through between 2008 and 2012. Applicants who'd served with honor for years – picking up rifles against the Taliban and running crucial interrogations – were treated like terrorists by consul hacks who rarely left the embassy grounds and had no sense of just how dire such work was. That bias, however common in the halls at State, is furiously rebuked by other staffers. "These little 30-something fucks, who are only in-country a year, spend three months looking for soft assignments and their last month filling out a claim for PTSD because they once heard a bomb go off a mile away," says a disgusted State hand who spoke on condition that he not be named. "There'll be a flood of murders when we leave Afghanistan, starting with the people who helped us fight. It's a huge point of friction between the Pentagon and State, but nothing ever changes because no one cares."

To be sure, there are other factors as well. "Every foreign service officer has to do a rotation as a visa stamper, and none of them wants to be the guy who lets a hijacker in," says the State Department vet. "The lower the number of visas, the lower the odds of career suicide," says Johnson. "I had a senior State guy tell me to my face that it was really bad for national security to let a bunch of Muslims in."

In Afghanistan, that intransigence came from the top. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general who had served two tours in-country, ordered his staff to deny all applicants whether or not there was "clear and convincing evidence of serious threat." Griping that it was hard to replace good help in a country "with a 28-percent literacy rate," he warned that granting visas would damage U.S. morale, draining off "our partners, the Afghan employees." He neglected to say whether morale declined when interpreters turned up dead in a ditch, their head and hands cut off, or if job performance suffered when their family members were kidnapped, maimed, and killed.