Janis Shinwari: Meet the Man the U.S. Left Behind to Die


War is unlike any other human activity. In the same way that it causes frightening destruction, it also cements unbreakable bonds between those who take part in its terror together. Strangers who go into battle often emerge as the closest of friends.

One of these "thicker than blood" relationships developed in 2008 between former Army Captain Matt Zeller and Afghan interpreter Janis Shinwari. The two met in 2008 in Ghazni province during a firefight that almost claimed the lives of Zeller and his unit. Pinned down by 45 Taliban fighters, Zeller and his team were about to be overrun. Low on ammunition, Zeller desperately tried to keep his team in the fight. Shinwari, displaying selfless courage, snuck up behind the enemy and killed two Taliban fighters about to shoot Zeller in the back. This cleared enough space for Zeller's team to maneuver away to a safe zone. Captain Zeller says that were it not for Shinwari's action that day, he would not have made it home.

Native Afghans who work for the U.S. as interpreters for more than a year are allowed an immigrant visa. Shinwari was elated when he and his family recently received their passports and visas to the U.S., only to have that elation turn to fear when the State Department revoked their visas for unspecified reasons. That is a decision that must be immediately overturned. The few instances when an applicant has their visa rescinded generally occur when U.S. counterterrorism hotlines receive anonymous tips. The government denies visas if red flags determine that the recipient is "inadmissible to the U.S. or otherwise ineligible", according to State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.

It doesn't take in depth analysis to understand what fundamentalist groups do to natives who help the U.S. war effort. The Taliban are notorious for actively seeking retribution on those who contract with the Defense Department, and they have already placed Shinwari on a kill list. In a recent Washington Post article Zeller said, "We used to have [interpreter's] toes and hands delivered in packages outside our base."

Shinwari and his family have received several threats from the Taliban — a recent message scratched on their car read: "Your day of judgment is coming." The Shinwari family cannot stay in Afghanistan any longer. Zeller fears that international news coverage of his case has elevated Shinwari on the Taliban kill list, and is certain that the anonymous tip that led to Shinwari losing his visa came from the Taliban. It is a tactic they have used before to smear countrymen who help the U.S., giving them more time to find and carry out retribution.

Zeller retired from the Army and the CIA, making an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2010. He is now using his public status to fight a bureaucracy that at times leaves us scratching our heads. Zeller has said that Shinwari is "like family. He saved my life. If you've ever been in combat, you'll know exactly what type of bond that engenders." Assuming all the facts have been properly represented in the media this week, Shinwari deserves to have his visa revocation overturned. He earned his place in this country, and his family does not deserve to be hunted by the Taliban.

Zeller is spreading the word about Shinwari, reaching out to lawmakers, and petitioning the government through change.org. If the U.S. cannot honor commitments, we do not deserve the respect, let alone the direct support, of native populations around the globe. As America attempts to carry out foreign diplomacy in an increasingly complicated world, it needs all the help it can get.