Army Capt. Matt Zeller and interpreter Mohammad Janis Shinwari in Afghanistan.
(Photo: 2008 photo Courtesy of Mohammad Janis Shinwari)
In less than five years, Mohammad Janis Shinwari went from English teacher in Afghanistan's capital, to interpreter for the U.S. Army, to hero who saved the life of an Army officer, to hunted man in his own country because he helped the United States.
After all that, Shinwari's most harrowing battle was still to come - a fight with the tangled U.S. bureaucracy for the visas he needed to bring his family to safety.
STATE DEPARTMENT: Visa process improving
They're hard to get, even for the closest friends of America. So hard, in fact, that the situation is a national embarrassment.
Since 2006, Congress has set aside 33,750 visas for Iraqis and Afghans like Shinwari. That might be enough. But applicants face a deluge of paperwork, harrowing years-long waits and demands to prove just how much danger they are in.
Just 8,323 visas - less than 25% of those set aside - have been granted to interpreters and others who worked with the United States. An additional 10,411 have gone to their family members. Security checks, handled by a gaggle of agencies, are often the holdup. Waits can be as long as four years.
The Washington Post reported Monday that several Afghan interpreters have been turned down; one was told, in a form letter, that he failed to prove there was a "serious threat" against his life. The Iraqi program is set to expire Dec. 31, the Afghan one nine months later. Those stranded face a dangerous future.
Shinwari's odyssey is emblematic of a broken system.
Shinwari proved his friendship the hard way. In 2008, on a mission with U.S. forces who were under attack by the Taliban, Shinwari saved the life of Matt Zeller, an intelligence officer he had just met.
When Zeller left Afghanistan, Shinwari kept working for the U.S. and landed on a Taliban kill list. For safety, he lived at an Army camp; his family moved in with relatives.
In 2011, he applied for a visa. It took 15 months to get word that he was eligible for an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and nine more months for visas to be issued. But days later, they were revoked. Shinwari wasn't told why. He was shattered.
By then, Zeller had swung into action, filing a Change.org petition that garnered 113,000 signatures, driving news coverage and enlisting six members of Congress. It paid off. On Oct. 29, Zeller and Shinwari embraced at Reagan National airport, where Shinwari, his wife and two children arrived to start a new life.
Shinwari is one of the lucky ones. Not everyone has a Matt Zeller. And no one should need one.
For humanitarian reasons alone, the process should be smoothed out and speeded up. It's also a national security issue. People who help the U.S. in hostile environments need to know they'll be protected.
The State Department won't say how many applicants are waiting or how long the process takes. Bipartisan majorities in Congress are fed up and have passed separate measures to extend the programs, set deadlines and provide accountability.
Zeller says he once asked Shinwari why he saved his life. The answer? "You guys are ... in our country to fight for Afghan freedom for our people. This is my responsibility."
Now it is America's responsibility to keep its promise.
USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view - a unique USA TODAY feature.