The Iraqi Allies We Left Behind

By Kirk W. Johnson

March 21, 2013.

This week marks 10 years since American forces stormed into Iraq, and although the war recedes from memory, I am daily reminded of an unresolved humanitarian consequence of the past decade. The reminders come in the form of desperate emails, text messages and phone calls from Iraqis who have become imperiled for the simple reason that they once decided to help the Americans.

These Iraqis are often viewed as traitors by their countrymen. Now they are trapped in the labyrinth of the U.S. refugee resettlement program because our government views them as potential terrorists.

Maybe we were once better at distinguishing good from bad, but all I saw during my time in Iraq— on a doomed mission as the first U.S. Agency for International Development reconstruction coordinator to the ruined city of Fallujah—was collective panic. As the insurgency worsened, Americans in Iraq learned to see danger everywhere. We built taller blast walls, thicker bunkers and went out into the cities less and less. We recruited thousands of Iraqi interpreters to risk their lives each morning by sneaking past militants into Baghdad’s Green Zone and into military bases in order to help us, but then welashed them to polygraph machines for fear that they might be insurgents. We had dogs sniff them for explosives and restricted their movement in our midst.

One of these Iraqis was a man named Omar, who worked for the U.S. Army as a forklift operator at a base in Kirkuk. He was a simple man with a simple job. He unpacked crates of food and supplies for our troops and, as we withdrew, he helped to pack us up.

After a half-decade of service to America, Omar applied for a refugee visa in June 2011, six months before President Obama announced the end of the war. For 12 months, he sent increasingly anxious appeals to our government, relaying death threats that he had received, and begging to be evacuated to Jordan. But all he received were auto-replies from the State Department, asking him for information that he had already submitted.

In July 2012, shortly after finishing a meal with his wife and 5-year-old son, Omar stepped outside to take a phone call. His decapitated body was found a couple of hours later. At the funeral, his brother received a death threat. When his widow and child returned to their home, they, too, found a death threat.

My organization, the List Project, is now trying to get the remaining members of Omar’s family out of Iraq, but the prospects are grim. It now takes two full years for an Iraqi who approaches the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad—the largest in the world—to be scheduled for an initial interview.

In 2007, Congress passed legislation opening up 25,000 visa slots for U.S.-affiliated Iraqis, but the provision is due to expire in the fall—with about 18,000 unused slots. Even if Congress reauthorizes the program, at its current pace it would still take the State Department about 17 years to issue the remaining visas.

The Afghans who stepped forward to help the American war effort are in for an even ghastlier future. A special visa program created to help them was effectively neutered in 2010 when then-Ambassador Karl Eikenberry warned in a cable that granting the visas would deplete his embassy staff. Three years later, as America draws down its forces in Afghanistan, the Obama administration has forgotten to ramp up the program, which now issues a shameful average of about 10 visas per month out of annual allocation of 1,500.

Few people in Washington seem troubled by the backlog of Afghan and Iraqi cases, which number in the thousands.

The English jurist William Blackstone in the 18th century issued what became a famous formulation—that it is better for 10 guilty persons to escape justice than for one innocent to suffer. Omar’s death certificate hangs on the wall in my office as a reminder that the principle of Blackstone has been inverted: The U.S. government would rather see 100 innocent people like Omar left behind to face assassination than admit one potential enemy.

An Iraqi or Afghan interpreter who risked his life to help us must prove himself innocent beyond all bureaucratic doubt, however reasonable or unreasonable it may be.

Ten years after the start of a war that is already ancient history for many Americans, many of our friends are still fighting for their lives.  Why is it so difficult for us to help them? Will it be any better the next time?

Mr. Johnson is the founder of the List Project and a former USAID reconstruction coordinator in Fallujah, Iraq.