Why Failing to Help Our Afghan Interpreters Would Be a Disaster

Why Failing to Help Our Afghan Interpreters Would Be a Disaster
Why Failing to Help Our Afghan Interpreters Would Be a Disaster

They served beside U.S. troops and wore the very same uniform. But now 18,000 Afghan interpreters fear for their lives as the American government completes a military withdrawal from the country. How we treat our closest allies tells a story about who we are as Americans: the meaning of "no man left behind," and the value of friendship, loyalty and honor. Steve Miska, a retired Army officer and the author of Baghdad Underground Railroad, joins Left of Boom to discuss what it will take to stay true to our interpreters.

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Mentioned in this episode:

No One Left Behind

Iraqi and Afghan Interpreters

The Guam Option

Special Immigrant Visas

The Baghdad Underground Railroad

The Fall of Saigon

The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Left of Boom:

Hope Hodge Seck 0:00

Welcome back to Left of Boom. I'm your host, Military.com managing editor Hope Hodge Seck. There's one overarching ethos that governs the way U.S. troops operate on the battlefield: It's the concept of no man left behind. That's why so many veterans have dug deep to invest time and money to help their Afghan and Iraqi interpreters obtain visas and safe passage to the United States, following their time working with the military. But now the U.S. is rapidly withdrawing all remaining American troops from Afghanistan, and still some 18,000 interpreters remain behind, many of them facing threats to their own lives and their families from the Taliban. We're joined today by Steve Miska, a retired Army officer who worked to bring dozens of Iraqi interpreters to safety. We'll talk together about what the United States owes his allies in this crucial moment. Steve is the author of Baghdad Underground Railroad, which was published earlier this year.

Steve Miska, welcome to the show.

Steve Miska 1:07

Thanks, Hope, It's a pleasure to be here.

Hope Hodge Seck 1:09

So I will dive right into the thick of things. What was the Baghdad Underground Railroad?

Steve Miska 1:18

When I was in Baghdad at the end of 2006, and then pretty much all of 2007, it was the height of sectarian cleansing. And we realized as our interpreters started being targeted and in some cases killed, because they were working alongside of us, that we really needed to try to help them and everybody was coming after them. Al-Qaida in Iraq, Jaysh al-Mahdi Shia militia, even sometimes people in the government. And so as a result, we decided to try to get them out. And at that point, the Special Immigrant Visa had just been passed by Congress. And it was expanded from 50, which was the original allocation to 500 in 2007, thanks to the the advocacy of Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker and others. So we decided, Okay, no Iraqi is going to figure out our bureaucracy. So let's try to do it. And it took my team about three months to navigate the bureaucracy, but the underground railroad aspect of it came in because Embassy Baghdad had closed its doors to Iraqis citing security concerns, and directed them to go to Amman, Jordan. Well, the Jordanians had closed the border to Iraqis because of a refugee crisis. So it was a built-in Catch-22. So we helped them go from Baghdad to Amman, and then on to the United States, if they were fortunate enough to be accepted. And in the U.S., we made sure that there were sponsors ready to receive them, because we knew how challenging the transition would be coming from a cash-based society and trying to land in the U.S. and get their feet on the ground.

Hope Hodge Seck 3:02

So this sounds really like an initiative that you undertook because you realize the importance. What was the role of U.S. military leaders? I mean, how were they responding to what you were doing? Were they supportive? You know, what, how did that play out?

Steve Miska 3:18

They were supportive. But you've got to imagine at the time, it was extremely chaotic. You know, this was, as surge forces are coming in to Baghdad, and Iraq, it was just really, it was lethal for us. But it was extremely lethal for anybody on the streets, the civilians out there. And so senior leadership knew that we were doing it and was supportive of the idea. It just, you know, it wasn't something that I think rose to the top of the priority list, with all the other challenges we were dealing with at the time. And quite frankly, you know, my mandate was to the American moms and dads, right, to try to be the best leader I could for their sons and daughters who were there in combat. But I just ,we knew on my team that if we didn't make an effort, nobody would. And that's where the impetus came from. And really, it was a spark from George Packer's seminal article in The New Yorker, which was titled "Betrayed," and it was just a scathing indictment of the lack of U.S. policy, attempting to safeguard our most trusted partners.

Hope Hodge Seck 4:35

How long was this Baghdad Underground Railroad in place, and ultimately, how many interpreters were able to get out through this mechanism?

Steve Miska 4:45

So it was in place for about one year, and I will say about three dozen were able to escape. They all did not leave at that time, and I detail some of those instances in the book. Ronnie, in particular, his case was just incredible, he decided to stay. This is an example of the type of people that we're talking about. He got approved for a special visa, which most interpreters thought of as winning the lottery. It was so, you know, think about it, 500 visas, and that was between Afghanistan and Iraq. So it's a small number. And Ronnie gets approved. And he comes to me, and he says, I'm not going to go to the U.S. And I thought, You're crazy. It's so dangerous, you should go now. And he said, I don't want to arrive and have to rely on anybody. So I'm going to stay here and save up money because I want to be self-sufficient when I get to the U.S. And he ultimately left in 2009. So two years later, I was already redeploying back into Iraq at the time, and went down to Diwaniyah, and Najaf provinces. And so I was able to reunite with Ronnie and help him on his second go-round with the SIV at that time, because he had some adventures. But we don't know exactly how many, even the interpreters lost track of each other. And, you know, I went back to Germany, and immediately turned around and started getting redeployed back to Iraq. And so I couldn't really keep tabs on what was happening with all the sponsors in the U.S. and and how many eventually made it. I do know, six of them enlisted in either the U.S. Army or Marines when they arrived in the US, and then deployed back to combat as American combat linguists. Right. I mean, that's just the the caliber of people that we're talking about, they were so amazing.

Hope Hodge Seck 6:46

That's neat to hear a little bit about Ronnie's story. And also, you know, him taking that initiative to say, I want to support myself in this new country. Are there any other -- I'm sure there are many stories -- but what other stories of interpreters you were able to help stand out to, you stay with you?

Steve Miska 7:07

George, so -- and by the way, we use their nom de guerre's, right, it was extremely dangerous for them to use their real name, because if you knew their real name, you could figure out where they were from in Iraq and possibly track down their family. And that's even the case today. So I had to maintain all the nicknames in the book. And in some cases, I changed the names of characters to prevent them from coming under harm as well. But George was, his story was just amazing. He had worked with us for about two and a half years, I think, and was doing a lot of logistics for us, basically helping with contracting and work both on the Iraqi military side, because we lived on an Iraqi base. And we just had a small American enclave in this Iraqi base. So George was doing work for the Iraqi army, as well as for the U.S. Army at the time. And his family -- and this was not unusual -- but his mom came into the garage, and she found outside there, where they parked their car, she found a piece of paper, she didn't know what it said, because she didn't read. And his brother grabbed it and saw that it was a death threat directed against him for collaborating with the Americans. And so his brother luckily hid that from his mom ao she wouldn't be overly concerned. But when they spoke, George knew he couldn't go home anymore. And many of the interpreters would go home at least once a month, because it's a cash-based society. And that was how they were taking care of their families to give them money. But George pretty much figured out other ways to take care of the family. They would meet clandestinely with his brother or others, and try to avoid the eyes that were always watching in the neighborhoods where they transited.

Hope Hodge Seck 9:14

What is your take -- So we've been sort of admiring this problem for well over a decade of getting these interpreters who have served the US so faithfully -- What is your take on why it's been so difficult and frustrating to get these Afghan and Iraqi interpreters out of harm's way and safely to the U.S.?

Steve Miska 9:32

Hmm, that's a really good question. So I spent 14 months in Iraq, and I came to D.C. after my last tour in Iraq with this burning issue, and I thought it was going to be the Special Immigrant Visa. And I realized very quickly that it's bigger than that. It's a strategic challenge. It's logical for our enemies to fight from a position of weakness and target what I call our soft networks. The real blinding flash for me was I spent a year as a counterterrorism fellow just focused on this problem at National Defense University. And when I ended up doing a deep dive in history, I was studying the American Revolution. And I realized that we did this to the British, we were targeting loyalists to the crown and bringing them into the public square to recant their loyalty to King George, we were riding people out of town on rails, tarring and feathering people. This was a strategy that somebody fighting from a position of weakness logically executes. And it happened to us, you know, way before Afghanistan and Iraq, it happened in Vietnam, it happened in other conflicts, especially the lower intensity ones. So, if that's the case, then I started trying to figure out, how do we do better? How do we, and why is it that no administration really has done a good job of it. And I think part of it is, the level of interagency coordination required is super challenging. And really, what you need to do is you need to, you need to approach it proactively, right? As we go into the conflict, the first step is, let's try to protect the identities of all of the local national partners that we're working with, to the extent we can, both in the cyber realm as well as in the physical realm. And there are lots of things we can do along those lines. And we need to inform them that they need to do that because a lot of times they inadvertently give information away, say, post on Facebook, not a good idea. The media does a really good job of this, Hope. I don't know if you've worked with a lot of local national stringers, were fixers in your time abroad. But you understand, you know, that's one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. So is working alongside the military as an interpreter or in some other capacity, or our diplomats for that. And it's not just an American problem. It's a Western problem. In many cases, Britain, Germany, all of the the NATO countries that participate in Afghanistan, have this same problem, and they're trying to address it to varying degrees.

Hope Hodge Seck 12:24

The most mystifying thing to me is the near-universal agreement that we should help these interpreters. I mean, you've got members of Congress who have stories of losing interpreters in combat or actually going through the SIV process. So there's that personal experience. So at this point, you know, we've got the situation we've got, and yet it seems like there's so much political will, and relatively little action to to fix this problem. What's the missing piece here?

Steve Miska 12:58

Yeah, it's, you know, as you point out, it's rare to have bipartisan agreement on the hill. This is one of those issues that has had it ever since I've been involved. I mean, when I was pretty much going to help advocate on behalf of the SIV legislation that usually gets rolled into the NDAA every year. I mean, if Republicans and Democrats were all in agreement, we should take care of these folks. I think that right now, where we're at it, it's a very similar situation, as we were in in Vietnam, when we were withdrawing. And the State Department is in charge in terms of the security situation and any potential evacuation that could occur. And they're really concerned about a couple different things, I believe, that are the reservations. One is, this administration currently has, you know, tens of thousands of kids they've removed from the Mexican border. And they've got a really sticky problem that doesn't seem to have a good downstream policy solution. And so they see the 18,000 Afghan interpreters plus the 70,000 family members that they represent as being a another problem like that. Right. And if they relocate them somewhere, I know a lot of advocacy groups have talking about the Guam option. I think relocating them somewhere safe, if that's the immediate problem. But I think the administration one is concerned about what happens after that, what if people fail the security checks, and because of all the inefficiencies in the SIV, those failures are extremely high relative to how they should be for some of the most vetted refugees in the world. And that's due to bureaucracy and the way we go to conflict. And I'm happy to chat about that if you wan,t but the other one and the more important one which really ties it to the Vietnam case study is the optics. Right. And I heard Ambassador Khalilzad mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, I'm sure you noted that, in his remarks was, if we were to do this, it could give the impression that we believe that government is collapsing, or could precipitate the collapse. And that was the same argument used in Vietnam. And what happened was, we ended up waiting too long in Vietnam. And then it was a mad rush for the door. Now, the difference with Vietnam that's really important for policymakers to note is, there were plenty of seaports, and that was where the majority of people actually were evacuated from, we do not have that option in Afghanistan. So you've got a lot of incremental approaches to try to fix a system that is not going to be sufficient in the time that's remaining. And so I think it's really up to the Secretary of State and the president, to make this call. I hope that they will realize that you know, nothing good is going to happen from allowing 18,000 interpreters to be slaughtered by the Taliban, or ISIS or the other actors.

Hope Hodge Seck 16:20

So you mentioned this plan, this proposal to move interpreters to Guam and buy them a little bit more time. I know, you're affiliated with No One Left Behind, which has been an advocate for this proposal. Can you explain a little bit more in depth about what this would look like how it would work?

Steve Miska 16:37

I've been with No One Left Behindd for years, I'm on the advisory board of IRAP, the International Refugee Assistance Project, and have just been really working in this entire ecosystem, right, on on both ends, to make sense of it and try to provide the research that will help policymakers get better in this space. Guam is, you know, really, nominal, from the perspective of the nonprofit organizations in particular, are asking for a U.S. territory, because it alleviates some of the legal challenges. If we go to another country, I would suspect and I don't know what DoD is planning, I would think DoD and maybe the administration, if they were to execute, it might want to go a different way. Guam is an awfully long way from Kabul. You know, it's over a day's flight with a couple stops, and other options are allow for some direct flights. And really, I think the primary concern is get them to a safe location where then we can conduct the vetting process appropriately and to the standards that are expected without the security situation deteriorating around, and us losing our influence, quite frankly, to do it in Afghanistan. And it's not the right thing that we should attempt to ask the Afghan government to do this on our behalf. I really don't see it in their interest to do that. So it's got to be led by the US and other Western countries.

Hope Hodge Seck 18:13

You mentioned the, I guess, counterargument that you might get stuck with people at some third location, that you can't look forward to the US and you can't send back and they're kind of stuck there. Is there a response to that? Or is that just a problem that hasn't been solved yet?

Steve Miska 18:30

So you know, my response is, that's still not a good argument for not doing the evacuation, first and foremost. That said, if you look back historically, at the numbers, whether it be Vietnam, whether it be the Kurds in 1996, whether it the Kosovars in 1999, we are talking about a very small number. So we've done a lot with thorny issues like that in the past, right, we've gotten prisoners from Guantanamo to go to third countries, right? That's called diplomacy. And I really don't think that people who have gone on patrol with us and saved our lives, in many cases, are going to fall into that category. But let's say there is some small number less than 1%. I think that's a problem that's very manageable for our career diplomats who are used to doing those types of negotiations around the globe.

Hope Hodge Seck 19:31

You alluded to some lessons that have been learned mainly having to do with security in masking identities, and making sure interpreters have a level of safety from the start. But can you build on that, you know, what else have we learned that we can carry with us into the next conflict? And you know, how can we better give foreign nationals who helped the U.S. assurances that we won't leave them to die when the conflict ends?

Steve Miska 19:58

I'm not sure we've learnend all of those lessons you just cited, other than the hard way. And the important thing, right, is to institutionalize them in some way. And I'm not sure that has occurred. So that's part of the policy development and research work that I do with my consulting practice, it's called The Project to Strategically Protect Soft Networks. And we've been doing it for years, with researchers from all over the country, looking at best practices, both from non-government organizations, say the media, for example, to government organizations that do this very well. So domestic witness protection, right? And how do you do that? And then how do you protect identity in a way that allows us to continue the mission in those conflicts zones with these vital partners who we could not do without? And then should that fail, right, should those checks break down. Then how do we relocate locally if possible, so that we can keep them in the fight and keep them and not uproot them to some culturally extreme environment. So that's part of the thinking in terms of how to move forward. And really what we've we were able to do with a very generous grant from the Smith Richardson Foundation, in partnership with the Pacific Council on International Policy, we were able to create a policy development process that the National Security Council could lead, and to get the whole of government to really take a hard look at this, and develop the policies and standards, basically, within government as well as in the government contracting community. Because they're a huge part of this problem. They're the ones who do the letting of those contracts, and hiring of our interpreters and others. And that's one of the reasons why the research is so challenging, is because the data is not readily available. It's very hard to come by from the government contracting community. And we're working with partners in that space to try to resolve that. So those are are some of the the lessons learnrd from the contemporary space. But I would also like to note, because we're really deep into the the other case studies of evacuations right now, in Vietnam, when we finally realized we've got a problem and we needed to evacuate, the president appointed a task force, a special interagency task force, that was working from Guam all the way back to the United States in reception camps, and helping coordinate the actions of the nine different resettlement agencies that work in different capacities across the country to help resettle refugees when they arrive. But also linking them up with veterans who wanted to sponsor their family members, in many cases would step up and sponsor, as well as other civil society groups, churches, and rotary clubs and other organizations. And we have the benefit of some pretty robust nonprofits now, with organizations like No One Left Behind, and IRAP, and Miry's List in LA and Veterans for American Ideals, that links a veteran organization across the country to surge on issues like this. So those are some of the things that we are prepared to do in the coalition that is prepared to receive these refugees, should the administration make the call to evacuate.

Hope Hodge Seck 23:47

What are the chances, do you think, of the administration making that call and setting up such a task force?

Steve Miska 23:52

I think the chances are really good, Hope. And I don't think we control the conditions that will bring about those chances. And that's why so many of us are advocating, do it earlier rather than later. Even if the president were to nominate somebody prominent to lead that task force and stand up, it's basically buying an option for the future, right? Maybe you don't have to execute that option. Maybe it's just there as insurance policy. But should you you've got the apparatus already in place, you've got the coordination going on. Because it's super important to have the right people in place, both in uniform as well as in the civilian sector, and having those relationships already established. And once that's the case, then I think we'll be much better off in that some of the lessons learned that come from from cases like Vietnam.

Hope Hodge Seck 24:49

One thing that has really stayed with me, in the process of reporting several stories on this issue, is just how powerless a lot of veterans have felt to help even their own interpreters come to safety through the SIV process. In fact, I've talked with some veterans who had a little bit of political pull, and were able to call congressional hearings, or make those happen. And that was what it took to get one interpreter back. So that said, at this point, what can ordinary Americans or ordinary veterans do to help?

Steve Miska 25:26

Yeah, that's a great question. And and that's one of my frequent talking points, right, when I talk to policymakers about this, is we've got so many young men and women taking off their uniform from their time and service. And they feel like they're violating an ethos, because that ethos is we inculcate in them in the military of leave nobody behind. And then they feel like they're violating that, and they feel ashamed of our country for not addressing this problem. And so my question to the policymakers, it this how we want our young men and women going home and talking to, you know, their hometown, high schools, who are the potential next generation of recruits coming into the military? You know, I don't think so. And we can do better. This is not a Biden administration problem. This is an American problem. We need the President and the Secretary of State to make the decision. But I believe the American people have shown the propensity to rise to the occasion. And my book is a microcosm of that, right? These just courageous women, opening their doors to these young Iraqi men who are arriving in the U.S., and helping them get their feet on the ground. And I'll give you an example. Madonna, from Tucson. She's a widow, with her only son deployed to combat in Iraq. And he calls her up. And he says, Mom, I need some help. I need you to sponsor Ronnie when he gets to the U.S.. And of course, her son's asking, so she says, absolutely. And she goes to work the next day, and all of her girlfriends think she's gone nuts. Are you gonna let some strange Arab male come live in your house? And she responded, you know, I know my son wouldn't put me in danger. But of course, you know, she's got those reservations in the back of her mind. And she told me when I interviewed her, or writing the book, she said, You know, when I first saw Ronnie, and when I picked him at the airport, I knew he was going to be like a second son to me. And of course, he was, and still is. And he did what all sons do to their moms, he broke her heart, he enlisted in the Army and deployed back to Iraq. And so both her sons were in combat, right. And so that's the spirit of the American people, every one of those sponsors from the book when I talked to them. Number one, I had no idea what I was asking them to do, how hard it was going to be. And it was absolutely hard. But they all say they would do it again, it was one of the most meaningful things they've ever done in their life. And they would do it again. So that's the spirit that I hope comes through in the last third of the book. That's where it's focused on is this spirit of the potential the possibilities of our country, and the overwhelming generosity that people are willing to display.

Hope Hodge Seck 28:12

So where can people find your book and learn about your journey?

Steve Miska 28:18

So it's currently on Amazon and all the major virtual retailers and you can find it there. I am doing talks are right now pretty much in D.C. and Southern California. But where I go, I try to bring copies of book right to have on hand, in case people don't have it, and they want to get it right then. But I'd also like to point out, the big thanks to the U.S. Veteran's Artists Alliance, they have the publishing imprint Onward Press, and proceeds of the book support that veteran nonprofit. And they're all about helping veterans and family members tell their stories better. And they support a lot of aspiring screenwriters and other vets. So a wonderful organization. So please, if you're, if you're worried about where the money goes, it goes to a really good cause.

Hope Hodge Seck 29:10

Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for your time. It's been a pleasure to speak with you and to learn more about this important work.

Steve Miska 29:18

Thank you, Hope. It's been an honor.

Hope Hodge Seck 29:27

Thank you once again for joining us for a very important and timely episode of Left of Boom. This is also my last episode hosting this show. I am leaving Military.com to care for my family and pursue other projects. Left of Boom will likely go on hiatus for a little while, but I'm sure we'll be back soon with a new host and exciting new topics to tackle and conversations to have. In the meantime, thank you so much for being a listener. And as always, you can still find all the news and information you need about your military community every day at Military.com. Signing off.

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