KABUL, Afghanistan — It was an offhand comment, blurted out in frustration. It may have destroyed Shoaib Walizada’s chances of earning a cherished visa to the United States.
Mr. Walizada, who interpreted for the U.S. Army for four years until 2013, said that he had complained one day, using profanity, that his assigned combat vest was too small. When the episode came to light later that year, Mr. Walizada’s preliminary approval for a visa was revoked for “unprofessional conduct.”
Mr. Walizada, 31, is among thousands of Afghans once employed by the U.S. government, many as interpreters, whose applications for a Special Immigrant Visa, or S.I.V., through a State Department program, have been denied.
The program, established to relocate to the United States Iraqis and Afghans whose lives are threatened because they worked for the American military or government, has rejected some applicants for seemingly minor infractions and others for no stated reason.
Now, as American troops depart and Afghans experience a growing sense of anxiety and despair, the visa applications have taken on renewed urgency. With the Taliban taking advantage of the U.S. withdrawal, many former interpreters say they are more likely than ever to be killed.
“I get phone calls from the Taliban saying, ‘We will kill you’ — they know who I am and that I worked for the Americans,” Mr. Walizada said. He has delayed marriage because he does not want to put a wife at risk, he said, and he has moved from house to house for safety.
The slightest blemish during years of otherwise stellar service can torpedo a visa application and negate glowing letters of recommendation from American commanders. In the last three months of 2020 alone, State Department statistics show, 1,646 Afghans were denied one of the special visas, which are issued to applicants satisfying demanding requirements and rigorous background checks even though interpreters would already have passed security screenings.
Among reasons cited for denial were the failure to prove the required length of service, insufficient documentation, failure to establish “faithful and valuable service” and “derogatory information.”
More than 18,000 Afghans are awaiting decisions on their S.I.V. applications, according to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Many say they are seized by dread, fearing they will be denied, or approved only after they have been hunted down and killed.
No One Left Behind, a nonprofit that advocates for the relocation of Afghan interpreters to the United States, says that more than 300 translators or their relatives have been killed since 2014. Thousands of S.I.V. applicants have submitted “threat letters” they received from the Taliban.
The visa program, first approved by Congress in 2006 for interpreters in Afghanistan and Iraq, has long been slowed by chronic delays and logjams. Most recently, a 2020 report by the State Department Inspector General identified six serious shortcomings in the Afghan S.I.V. process, including staff shortages and lack of a centralized database.
Many interpreters complain that they wait for months, and in some cases years, for a decision. Some joke that they have “S.I.V. syndrome” from constantly logging on to a State Department website for updates.
Nearly 21,000 visas were issued to Afghans from 2009 to March 2021, according to State Department figures. Just under 11,000 visas are still available.
Sayed Obaidullah Amin, 46, who interpreted for the U.S. Marine Corps for two years, said that he had passed an in-person interview at the American Embassy. But he was abruptly denied in 2019; a terse letter cited “lack of faithful and valuable service” and “derogatory information associated with case.”
Mr. Amin says he believes the S.I.V. program learned that, during one stint with a Marine unit, he returned to duty two days late after being granted leave to deal with his father’s heart attack.
Officials at the State Department and at the embassy said they could not provide the percentage of Afghan S.I.V. applicants who had been denied.
Most interpreters carry thick folders stuffed with letters from former commanders extolling their dedication and courage. A letter from a Marine officer, sent in hopes of reversing Mr. Amin’s rejection, praised his loyalty and steadfast service.
The officer, Andrew Darlington, a retired captain, said in an email that the embassy had not responded to his queries about the denial. “Thousands like Obaid are facing certain death in the next 12 to 24 months,” he wrote.
Waheedullah Rahmani, 27, said he had been waiting since 2015 for an S.I.V. decision. That year, he said, the embassy asked him to resubmit threat letters and letters of recommendation. He did so, he said, but his emails to the program have since gone unanswered.
“They’ve put me in a terrible position by not telling me whether they’re even processing my application,” he said.
Mr. Rahmani said that he had served two years as an interpreter for the U.S. Army, accompanying soldiers during several firefights.
Now married with a daughter, he teaches English. But everyone at the school knows he once worked for the American military, he said.
“If the Taliban take over, they’ll easily find me and kill me,” Mr. Rahmani said. “Then my wife will have no husband and my daughter will have no father.”
In a statement on Monday, the Taliban said that Afghan interpreters were not “in any danger on our part” but that they should show “remorse for their past actions and must not engage in such activities in the future.” However, the statement comes amid a targeted assassination campaign attributed to the Taliban that has killed dozens of civilians, government workers, security forces and media workers in the past year.
Interpreters served as the eyes and ears for American troops, few of whom speak Dari or Pashto or comprehend Afghan cultural norms. Interpreters helped navigate tribal and ethnic rivalries. They guided commanders through often tense partnerships with Afghan security forces, some of whom turned their weapons on American troops.
Most interpreters covered their faces and used American nicknames such as “Mike” or “Charlie” — especially when interpreting for U.S. service members interrogating Taliban detainees. Some said detainees vowed to kill them once they were freed.
Interpreters proved especially valuable during meetings with local Afghan leaders, a pillar of counterinsurgency efforts, in which American commanders worked to gain the trust of village elders and officials. But some of the Afghans were Taliban supporters.
Mr. Amin, for instance, “assisted us in ‘reading the room’” during meetings with local Afghans “to ensure we were able to spot Taliban infiltrators or spies,” Captain Darlington wrote.
Other NATO countries are expediting their visa processes for eligible Afghans. On May 31, the British government announced plans to relocate to Britain about 3,000 interpreters and others who served the country’s military and government.
In the United States, members of Congress, former national security officials and advocacy groups have pressed the State Department to accelerate the S.I.V. process and for Congress to provide more slots.
In a May 19 letter to President Biden, 20 Democratic and Republican senators noted that Afghan employees had saved the lives of American troops and diplomats. The senators voiced their support for the addition of 20,000 S.I.V. slots and suggested evacuating applicants to a third country to await processing.
John F. Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters on June 2 that the Defense Department had “put some planning resources” into a potential evacuation. He said that no evacuation had been ordered but that if a command came, “we will be ready to execute.”
On Monday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told a House committee that the State Department had not ruled out such a move.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said late last month that it had temporarily increased consular staffing to help expedite S.I.V. applications amid rising demand and Covid-19 restrictions. Staffing has also been beefed up in Washington, where much of the application processing is completed, the embassy said.
But those steps mean little for interpreters whose applications have been denied or remain in limbo.
Mr. Walizada was wounded in the leg during a firefight with the Taliban — as verified in a letter from his U.S. commander. He said that his injury still bothered him and that he had lost weight while constantly moving to avoid Taliban detection.
“If the Taliban find me, they’ll torture me and then kill me,” he said. “It’s better if I just kill myself first.”
Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.