Commentary

United States of Al: a comedy that brings home the deadly dilemma faced by Afghan interpreters

CBS has a new show, “United States of Al,” about a Marine veteran named Riley, home at last after serving in Afghanistan. He is happily reunited with his friend Awalmir, who goes by Al, the interpreter with his unit, after a long struggle to get him a visa to travel to the United States from Afghanistan.

For thousands of those who risked their lives to help American troops, life is anything but funny.

But for Army veteran Matt Zeller and Afghan interpreter Janis Shinwari, co-founders of No One Left Behind — a non-profit dedicated to ensuring that America keeps its promise to our allies and their families who risked their lives for our freedomthe sitcom is a chance to let the American public know the sacrifices these men and women made for them.

We are thrilled that the American people are finally becoming familiar with the experience of our Afghan and Iraqi wartime allies — especially our interpreters. As our friend and fellow veteran Chase Millsap, a creator of the show says, we hope it helps folks heal through laughter. We also hope it draws attention to what matters most - the plight of those still left behind in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Currently there are over 18,000 applicants in Afghanistan alone awaiting decisions on their visa applications. Most have been waiting at least four years. They don’t have time to wait any more. Our enemies are hunting them down and murdering them and their families — as examples of what happens to America’s friends. We need the American government to process their applications immediately and expedite those who have been waiting the longest and are in most danger. We need our fellow citizens to contact their members of Congress and ask them to remove the cap on visas and the sunset provision on the program. Everyone who has worked and earned a visa through their service should receive a visa as soon as possible. Visas are not a finite resource that once mined are gone forever. They are a figment of our creation. We need Congress to authorize the State department to create as many as possible for as long as possible in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Matt Zeller (left) and Janis Shinwari. Zeller said Shinwari
Matt Zeller (left) and Janis Shinwari. Zeller said Shinwari "became one of my best friends in life," after he saved Zeller by killing an approaching insurgent in 2008. Zeller, then his base intel officer, made Shinwari his personal interpreter and trusted "validator of information." (Courtesy Matt Zeller)

Should collapse come in Afghanistan, it will happen faster than Washington can respond to it. Afghanistan is not Vietnam. We do not have an ocean and boats with which to facilitate a rapid evacuation. We are not the Soviets. We do not have the luxury of getting to drive north into Tajikistan during our withdrawal.

When collapse occurs in Afghanistan, it will engender a rapid evacuation that, given Afghanistan’s unique place in the world and our geopolitical relations with its neighbors, must occur via air. There are four, maybe five airfields in all of Afghanistan that will be able to handle the airlift needed to rapidly evacuate our own personnel and absolutely must have equipment. Our Afghan wartime allies — the interpreters, engineers, truck drivers, cooks, etc. without whom we couldn’t have accomplished any of what we’ve done thus far and thanks to whom many of us are still alive — they and their families will likely be our lowest priority for the scarce seats available on the few flights out. We have to understand, anyone who worked with us, has likely excommunicated themselves from the society around them thanks to that work. They are viewed by that society as American spies, traitors, and in the worst case, apostates. We have an obligation to save these people while we can - which is now.

In 1975 and 1996 we evacuated our Vietnamese and Kurdish allies to Guam. They lived on Guam, in safety, while their permanent visa applications were processed through the system. We should do the same now, while there’s still time and we still can. Fighting season is upon us in Afghanistan. The Taliban have demanded we uphold our agreement to remove all US forces by May 1, 2021.

Our Afghan wartime allies live in fear that each day might be the day that the Taliban and their hit teams catch up with them and their families. Many live in hiding. Most likely aren’t even aware of United States of Al. We want to give them the chance to laugh with the rest of us. We can save these people. All we have to do is have the courage and conviction to do the right thing.

Matt Zeller is a US Army veteran. He is also Co-Founder of No One Left Behind, a Truman National Security Project Fellow, and an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project. He is the author of Watches Without Time (Just World Books, 2012), which chronicles his experience serving as an embedded combat adviser with the Afghan security forces in Ghazni, Afghanistan, in 2008.

Janis Shinwari served as an interpreter for the US Military for nine years and is Co-Founder of No One Left Behind. He is credited with saving the lives of four American service members during his service.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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