A broad-beamed, crew-cut man with a mind, and a motor, that never stops, Zeller is the guy to have your back in a bar brawl – though the odds are fairly good that he provoked it. Funny and profane, he's also serious enough to have published his combat memoir (Watches Without Time) and made a near-miss bid for Congress by the age of 30. Raised in Rochester, New York, with big-town ambitions, he graduated magna cum laude from Hamilton College, earned two master's degrees from Syracuse University, and taught himself Arabic in the course of a summer, all while a second lieutenant in the New York Guard. "I signed up a week after 9/11 and was ready to quit college to be a grunt," he says. The Army, however, had better ideas and bumped him to its ROTC program. He finished grad school in 2006, joined the CIA, and was a fast-track hire in its intelligence directorate when his National Guard unit was called up. He could have stayed behind – counterterrorism trumps the front line – but Afghanistan was the fight he sorely wanted. "The Taliban protected bin Laden; Iraq was just a dumb-shit war of choice," says Zeller.
He believed in the mission, even after he went over and found a boondoggle financed on the cheap. "The expression in Iraq was 'We do what we must'; in Afghanistan, it was 'We do what we can,'" he says. "We'd wait months for resupplies, and we stole food from other bases; our wireless was provided not by KBR but by some local guy named Baktash – and it was dial-up." Assigned to help stand up Afghan troops while assessing the state of the National Police, he saw penniless cops selling their guns and ammo for bus fare to go back home and U.S.-built precincts, costing millions of dollars, surrendered to insurgents without ever being occupied by Afghan police. Meanwhile, the enemy controlled the towns, choosing when and where to engage. Once, after a firefight, Zeller sat with a Taliban captive. He was grossly underfed, and his rifle had no firing pin. Zeller brought him something to eat and drink, then asked him why he thought he could defeat an army that came with tanks and planes. The man eyed the Seiko on Zeller's wrist. "You Americans have all the watches," he said, "but we have all the time."
Still, Zeller discerned something decent to fight for: the villagers in the sectors he patrolled. "These people are so poor, living on lentils and bread, but go sit in their house and they'll serve you anything they have," he says. "The best thing we've done there in 10-plus years is teach 3 million women how to read and write. That's 3 million women who are brave enough to think – and who won't raise Taliban for sons."
That rough-hewn resolve was embodied by Shinwari, the linguist who saved Zeller's life. Like most interpreters, he hid his occupation from all but immediate family and took pains to avoid being seen in the street, lest the Taliban track his movements. He proudly took position during firefights, though, dropping Taliban at distance with no laser scope, using just the sights on his AK. The bookish son of a fighter pilot in the Afghan air force, he was born in Jalalabad, a bustling city near the rivers of the northeast border, around the time of the Soviet invasion. His family later moved to Kabul. Shinwari has lived all his 35 years at war or in refugee camps, having fled to Pakistan with his family in the 1990s, just as the Taliban were about to storm the city. He returned after coalition troops freed Kabul, but the house in which his parents raised five children had been stripped to the bricks by insurgents. In exile, he'd burned to become an engineer; now, with his proud family ruined financially, he trained for the best-paying work he could get: a $980-a-month job as a combat linguist.
In 2006, he took a slot with the U.S. Army in the ungovernable province of Paktika. Months later, he jumped to FOB Vulcan in Ghazni, which was where he met Zeller, in 2008. Studiously Muslim, Shinwari never cursed or touched a drink; Zeller was about as chaste as a strip club barker, albeit one who'd read Cervantes and von Clausewitz. The two men became, of course, instant friends and, over seven months, something like brothers. Shinwari taught him Pashto and Afghan manners. Zeller taught him about Zeppelin and Arcade Fire, and sweated bullets when, once a month, Shinwari took the bus back to Kabul. "There's no electronic banking, so he'd have to go home to hand off the money he made," says Zeller. "Meantime, the Taliban were stopping buses and checking cellphones for names. If you had American contacts, they pulled you off the bus and beheaded you by the side of the road."
Zeller, who held himself liable for Shinwari's safety, used his pull to send him home by convoy or, on rare occasions, by chopper, to Kabul. He felt no less responsible five years later, when he learned that Shinwari's visa had been pulled. "I did what I always do: I got good and pissed off, and then I got after it," he says. He called an acquaintance at the State Department, who tacitly acknowledged what Zeller had instantly suspected: that the Taliban had seen the news stories about Shinwari and phoned a lie to an anonymous-tip line that he worked for them. "There's nothing I can do," said the guy at State. "You need your people in Congress to call the right people here; it's your only shot."
Zeller, who'd landed a plum job at a D.C. consulting firm, took time off from work to strafe the Hill with urgent cries for help. Senator Tim Kaine responded, calling over to State. So did Rep. Jim McDermott (WA), who got a State Department higher-up on the phone. But the official grew testy and McDermott rang off, threatening to hold hearings. More calls were placed, including one from Rep. Louise Slaughter (NY) to Patrick Kennedy, an undersecretary of state. "He said, 'I've just been made aware of this and promise to fix it,'" says Zeller. "Two weeks later, Janis [Shinwari] was at the embassy, getting polygraphed by the CIA."
It was, to say the least, a tense encounter. "They keep telling me, 'You are bad guy; you are terrorist,'" says Shinwari, still stung by the charges months later. "I say, 'How can you say that when I work for seven years and never do one wrong thing?'" Unflappable, he passed with flying colors and was called back for a second round of polygraphs three days later. "He's on every Taliban's hit list, his wife starts wailing when he leaves the house, but we drag him out of hiding for this shit," says Zeller, who was a sleep-deprived wreck for two months. He blamed himself for the media glare that cost Shinwari a visa, and for his powerlessness to protect a friend from the government they'd both served. "I called my mom crying about what a failure I was. She said the right things, but I didn't hear a word. I was going to be the one to get him killed."
Or save his life. Two days after the second interrogation, Shinwari spoke with the embassy in Kabul; on the line was the consul general herself. "She say, 'Your name is clear; you can keep your visa,'" he recalls. Zeller got the news, via Facebook, from Shinwari at 7 am, October 17. He knelt and praised God, but he refused to believe it fully until Shinwari came through customs at Kennedy International Airport. "I'd had my heart broken once already, and if they turned him around in Hamburg or Dubai – well, God help me and whoever pulled that stunt," he says.
On the evening of October 28, Shinwari; his wife, Frozan; and their small son and daughter embarked on a four-leg, 40-hour passage from Kabul to Washington, D.C. A small army awaited them when they came down the runway a night later at Ronald Reagan: Zeller and his then girlfriend, Megan Elkins; two congressmen, Reps. Blumenauer and Dan Maffei (NY); a camera crew and a reporter from CBS; and representatives from several nonprofit groups who'd taken up Shinwari's cause. Zeller, who'd fretted over a proper greeting, forgot himself and swept up his friend in a hug, then touched his face to make sure he wasn't dreaming. With 50 people watching, including a crowd that had drifted over from the only snack stand still open, they traded jokes and salutations in Pashto and English, clinging to each other an extra beat.
For the first couple of weeks after his family's salvation, Shinwari was dazed but euphoric. Reporters came calling, seeking his take on foreign policy and the cultural significance of Miley Cyrus. There were senators to meet and briefings to give; he was everyone's feel-good story in D.C. Zeller found him an apartment, raised some money to tide him over, and urged him to take it easy for a month. But Shinwari, who'd been working seven-day weeks since he dropped out of school to support his siblings, began to feel stymied by his freedom. He had no car or the means to get one and was trapped indoors by a northeast winter. He got an offer from Senator Kaine to help him land a job, and hoped, in time, to support both of his families – the one he brought from Kabul and the mother, nieces, and nephews he left behind: "They're in very big danger because of me; the Taliban will kill them if they can."
His deliverance, in short, has been bittersweet, but Shinwari is built to soldier on. "I'll work in grocery or gas station while I learn computers; I'm not ashamed to start there," he says. If the experience of his fellow émigrés is any guide, Shinwari will eventually hit his stride. Last summer, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a senior correspondent for The Washington Post, caught up with eight or so Iraqi allies who'd served, and sometimes saved, him during the Shiite insurgency and who'd been lucky enough to secure a U.S. visa. They'd all rapidly made their way here, most without a dime of public assistance. Among them was Muhammed al-Kusairy, a former officer in Saddam's army who runs the security staff at a Phoenix hospital and volunteers weekends with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, patrolling the Mexican border for illegals; and Naseer Nouri, an interpreter in Baghdad who's become a night mechanic at Ronald Reagan. That's right: Nouri is repairing the planes that you and I fly on, and there isn't a single reason why he shouldn't. In the six years since the passage of Blumenauer's legislation, there's not been even a whiff of a subversive act by any of the 13,000 exiles from Iraq and Afghanistan. They work, pay taxes, take night-class English: the great immigrant story writ new. But thousands more wait without a Zeller to save them, hiding in Kuwait or an in-law's basement, their prospects dimming by the month.
"They have two options: America or die, because the people there, they think we are traitors," says Shinwari, who worked with hundreds of 'terps, only five of whom won visas and got out. Their plight eats at him but devours Zeller, who lies awake brooding about the country he fought for – and the one that sent him there to fight. "In Afghanistan, we learned a phrase – nana watai – which means 'I seek asylum' in Pashto," says Zeller. "If you say that to an Afghan, he's duty-bound to protect you. You'd think we'd be big enough to return the favor."