The Friends We Left Behind
Credit: Courtesy Matt Zeller
"My translator, Mohammad, got death threats for weeks, then the Taliban took his father," says Adrian Kinsella, a captain on active duty in the U.S. Marines who was willing to go public about his translator's plight. "They tortured him, shot him, and mutilated his body, then dumped the corpse in Wadi." Later, they came for Mohammad's brother, a three-year-old boy who was lured from his doorstep by the promise of candy. Mohammad, then 22 and the sole supporter of his mother and seven much younger siblings, withdrew his life savings and delivered the ransom as the boy's captors had instructed: to the grave of his murdered father. The Taliban eventually gave the boy back but warned Mohammad not to tempt fate twice. So he quit his post at Camp Leatherneck, forsaking the salary that fed his family, and went into a long and anguished period of hiding as he waited for his visa to process.

"We were told it would take a while, but it's been more than three years, and we can't even get an update on his status," says Kinsella, a Cornell grad who's now at Berkeley Law School, preparing to become a Marine judge advocate. He decided to be a lawyer after his 2010 Afghan tour, at least partly to guide Mohammad and others like him through the visa process, which he describes as Kafkaesque. "First, 'terps need a mentor, an officer they work for, to go out and spend months getting letters of recommendation, and logging every death threat they get," Kinsella says. Then, if the officer is still in-country when the application is completed, they need him to bird-dog its progress at the embassy, lest it languish on someone's desk or be dismissed by one of the clerks. If it passes muster there, it goes to Washington, D.C., for a months-long crawl at the National Visa Center, then an endless and redundant series of background checks by the CIA, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security, any of which can, and do, spike the application for a misspelled name or wrong date. When, or if, it finally runs the gauntlet there, it bounces back to Kabul for further review, including cross-examinations of the applicant and his family. "It's completely insane – these guys get constantly vetted while they're working for us," says Kinsella. "They're given counter-intelligence tests every few months to keep their security clearance. Also, they've had years to kill Americans on base, and not one of them ever has."

Steering Mohammad's case from his stateside billet, Kinsella got it through the National Visa Center, then into the hands of the CIA and FBI. Once there, it stalled until August 2012, when it was cleared and sent to Kabul for final approval. Having gotten this far, the file suddenly went missing at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, then surfaced again in February 2013 at the National Visa Center. Meanwhile, Mohammad – so prized by Kinsella's troops that they dubbed him an honorary Marine – camped in a stifling two-room safe house with his siblings and extended family. He can't work or walk the streets for fear of being spotted, and has sold off everything he owns of value to meet his basic expenses. "We Skype or text when he can get a signal," says Kinsella. "He tries to sound cheerful when we talk, but I can tell this is eating him up."

Last spring, Kinsella reached his limit. He got in touch with Katherine Reisner, the director of national policy at the Iraq Refugee Assistance Project. Reisner, who's 29 but already a dynamo in Washington, where she's driving legislation to extend the SIV program, hooked him up with the Chicago Tribune, which ran a stirring feature about Kinsella and Mohammad. Kinsella sent the article to 19 members of Congress; nine of them launched inquiries into the case. As before, though, nothing budged for Kinsella. He couldn't get the State Department to answer his posts, and calls to the Afghan embassy dumped to voice mail. "Forty months now," says Kinsella, who's been bruised and disillusioned by the experience. "At this point, I'd be better off marrying the guy, or smuggling him into Cuba. I mean, this is America, the greatest nation on Earth. We can do anything we want – or so I thought."

His sentiments notwithstanding, there have been recent signs that someone in power is listening. Recruited by a wave of similar stories, a caucus on Capitol Hill has taken up the issue. With the support of Jim Moran (VA) and Jim McDermott (WA) in the House, and by John McCain (AZ), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), and Tim Kaine (VA) in the Senate, Rep. Blumenauer (OR) and others wrote a letter to President Obama, urging him to break the logjam. Another went jointly to John Kerry, the secretary of state, and to Chuck Hagel, the secretary of defense, asking for a thorough investigation of the process. Suddenly, cases started going forward – but mostly from Iraq, not Afghanistan. In 2013, the State Department granted visas for some 3,000 Iraqis. In Afghanistan, an uptick brought the number last year to roughly 1,500.

Recently, Congress passed brief extensions of the Iraq and Afghanistan legislation; visas will be processed only until September 30, 2015. (The deadline for applications is September 30,2014.) "But at current rates of approval," says Johnson, "it'll take 17 years for the Iraq backlog to clear, and seven for the Afghan exiles." Without a media-savvy soldier to back them, he adds, "the vast majority of them are screwed beyond all hope."

At least 5,000 more wait on years-long lines, though, and each day, the calendar works against them. The six-year program will expire unless Congress can agree on an extension by this October. Given the snarl on Capitol Hill these days, that seems about as likely as a ticker-tape parade for the 2 million troops who fought these thankless wars, and the tens of thousands of Afghans who risked life and limb to send them home to their families safely.