The U.S. Must Pay Its Debts to Its Iraqi Allies

An Iraqi translator working in Baghdad, Iraq, in August 2007. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The following is a guest post from Sushmita Meka, a Masters of Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  Previously, she worked as a research associate for the Centre for Microfinance at IMFR in Chennai, India and a fellow with FrontlineSMS:Credit in Nairobi, Kenya.

It’s strange to think that the end of the Iraq war has come and gone so quietly, eight years after the fact. At a cost of $800 billion dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, this chapter has closed with little fanfare and muted tribute to those who have died and whose lives have been immutably changed.

Among those whose lives have been permanently altered are the unsung and largely abandoned heroes that supported our every move in the war. Without them to navigate this new physical and social landscape, our soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers would have been completely at a loss. These are the translators, the fixers, and the drivers that risked the additional burden of being deemed aameel—collaborators, agents, traitors—at home to support the American effort.

I first became aware of their plight in 2007 when George Packer of the New Yorker wrote at length about our betrayal.

But the mostly young men and women who embraced America’s project so enthusiastically that they were prepared to risk their lives for it may constitute Iraq’s smallest minority. I came across them in every city: the young man in Mosul who loved Metallica and signed up to be a translator at a U.S. Army base; the DVD salesman in Najaf whose plans to study medicine were crushed by Baath Party favoritism, and who offered his services to the first American Humvee that entered his city. They had learned English from American movies and music, and from listening secretly to the BBC….The arc from hope to betrayal that traverses the Iraq war is nowhere more vivid than in the lives of these Iraqis. America’s failure to understand, trust, and protect its closest friends in Iraq is a small drama that contains the larger history of defeat.

These are the Iraqis who lived surreptitious lives to aid this cause and gave their lives more often than should ever have been tolerated. Five years later, America’s failure to grant refugee status to these men, women, and their families (numbered at over 100,000), even as we have pulled out our last troops, is indefensible. Five years later, and these words still ring prophetic:

America is pulling away from Iraq in the fitful, irritable manner of someone trying to wake up from an unpleasant sleep. On my last day in Baghdad, I had lunch with an Embassy official, and as we were leaving the restaurant he suddenly said, “Do you think this is all going to seem like a dream? Is it just going to be a fever dream that we’ll wake up from and say, ‘We got into this crazy war, but now it’s over and we never have to think about Iraq again’?” If so, part of our legacy will be thousands of Iraqis who, because they joined the American effort, can no longer live in their own country.

In 2007, after this article was published, there was a semblance of hope. Thanks to George Packer and Kirk Johnson of the List Project, Congress realized its folly and passed legislation allowing for the safe entry of 25,000 American-affiliated Iraqis over the following five years via special immigrant visa status. Those that had loyally served the U.S. for at least one year and that faced an imminent threat on account of their service were deemed eligible. Unfortunately, to date, at most just over 5,000 have been granted.

This is due not to a lack of perseverance on the Iraqi side but rather to an arcane labyrinth of bureaucratic procedures that these individuals are forced to navigate (including sending petition forms from Iraq to Nebraska). As a result, processing takes up to two years and requires multiple security checks (including a last-minute check before departure if one were to get that far).

As we pull out of Iraq, these lives are in even graver danger. Militias are known to have lists of individuals who served the American army, lists that are being used to coordinate assassinations. Repeatedly, those identified as assisting the occupier have been systematically targeted—in Vietnam upon our withdrawal, in Iraq as the British left, and even on our own soil following the American Revolution.

It’s not enough to leave these individuals to fend for themselves—to abandon them now would be no less than murder when there are viable options. For one, Iraqis at risk can be airlifted to Guam to await further processing—this is an option that has been exercised multiple times in the past and for which there is political support inside of Guam.

If you are still not compelled to act, read this. If you are, you can write or better yet call your Congressperson and/or representatives on the Committee on Foreign Relations to signal your concern. Please tell your friends, family members, colleagues, etc. to do the same.

As Americans, we pride ourselves on honoring our debts.  For the sake of the thousands of Iraqis and their families whose lives are now in danger, I hope we live up to our creed.

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