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Leaving Behind Our Loyal Afghans

Posted on Apr 17, 2013
U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Dallas Edwards

U.S. Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Glenn Niemitalo talks to a village elder with the assistance of an interpreter about upcoming development projects in Jani Khel, Afghanistan.

By Richard Reeves

A very wise man, Harvard philosopher George Santayana, said more than a hundred years ago: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

A bit less famously, he also said: "A man’s feet should be planted in his country, but his eyes should survey the world."

Last Monday morning, I brought a copy of The New York Times to a government class at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism. I’m on the faculty there.

There were, I thought, a couple of extraordinary stories I wanted the students to read and to talk about with me and a guest, Adam Nagourney, the Los Angeles bureau chief of the Times.

One of the stories took me back to Santayana. A long piece beginning on the front page of Nagourney’s paper, my former paper, was headlined:

"Afghan Interpreters for the U.S. Are Left Stranded and at Risk"

More than 8,000 interpreters are employed by the United States military, and many thousands of other Afghans are working for the occupiers. And then there are the Afghans working for American newspapers and television networks. History tells us that when we leave the country, many of them will be executed by the Taliban—dozens, if not hundreds, have been executed already—just as the people who worked for us in Vietnam and Iraq have been killed or imprisoned if they were not lucky enough to survive in leaky fishing boats trying to find American warships off the coast.

The focus of the story is an interpreter called "Sulaiman," no last names are used, who has worked for us for 10 years. So far, he has survived three assassination attempts since July 2011. "His best hope," says the story by Azam Ahmed, "is one that has remained beyond his grasp despite years of effort: an American visa. ... As the American pullout hits full pace and bases across the country are shut down, hundreds of Afghans have suddenly found themselves without jobs, leaving them without military protection despite the continued risk of attack by the Taliban."

Sulaiman, who first applied for a visa in 2008, is in a much worse situation than employees of the Americans were in Iraq. There were 25,000 visas for them, but there are only 7,500 for Afghans. I tried to compare what we are doing in the Middle East with Vietnam history. Not much help there. None of the 15 students in the class knew who "boat people" were, though thousands of the Vietnamese who escaped their new North Vietnamese occupiers live just south of here in Orange County.

One student remembered, vaguely, the famous photo by Hubert Van Es taken on April 29, 1975—the one of Americans struggling up ladders to reach a Huey helicopter that had landed on top of the elevator shaft in the apartment building where the CIA station chief lived with many of his agents. Their Vietnamese helpers, who were pushed away from helicopters and embassy gates, stood helplessly on the roof as North Vietnamese soldiers entered the building.

It is the American way. That same day, last Monday, the president of the United States deflected questions about past terrorism by saying he wants to deal with the present and future. Sulaiman wants a future, too. He is 26 years old. If he gets to the United States, he wants to join the Army and take Ranger training.

He joined us at the age of 16 and speaks English with a Midwestern accent. The last thing he heard from the State Department, after 300 combat missions all around the country, was an automated e-mail saying: "Individuals who believe they are in peril in their place of residence should consider leaving that location and moving to another nearby safe place, inside or outside the country."

So, we do stand in our country, but we do not really look at the world. In fact, we’re barely part of it. Next year our Army, a volunteer army, our CIA agents and our well-paid contractors will come home. The Afghans, like the Vietnamese and Iraqis, are there forever—and it will probably be a very short forever for those Afghans we leave behind.



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