Courtesy of Matt Zeller

Did the Taliban Get the U.S. To Revoke an Afghan Interpreter’s Visa?

After years of working as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Janis Shenwary was set to bring his family to the United States. Now his visa is on hold. By Stephanie Gaskell

U.S. Army veteran Matt Zeller was finally looking forward to seeing his former Afghan interpreter after cutting through years of bureaucratic red tape to get him a visa to bring his wife and kids to the United States, where they would be safe from continual Taliban death threats.

But Zeller just got word that the visa for his interpreter, Janis Shenwary, just got revoked. And Zeller and Shenwary think a phone call from the Taliban is to blame.  

“Somebody called in an anonymous tip on him. The Taliban read the U.S. news. They look for people who got their visas,” Zeller told Defense One. He said whoever took the call about Shenwary’s plans to travel to the United States “issued a red flag and by law, the State Department has to revoke [his visa].”

Shenwary spent years trying to secure a visa under the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visas program, getting letters of recommendation from every U.S. military unit he served with. The problem, Zeller said, was that Shenwary was so good at his job, no unit wanted to let him go.

“Word got out among our replacements that Janis was one of the best interpreters on the base. Our replacement unit's leadership determined they needed Janis to succeed at their mission. As a result, they held off writing their letters until the end of their tour. And as they were replaced by yet another unit, the process repeated itself,” Zeller wrote in a recent piece for Defense One. But with Shenwary on a Taliban kill list since at least 2006, for working with U.S. forces, he knew he had to get his family out of Afghanistan. After being told he had secured visas for his wife and two kids, Shenwary quit his job, sold his house and most of his belongs, preparing to board a flight to the U.S.

“Now he has nothing,” Zeller said. “He’s not eating. He’s gone into hiding. He’s terrified.”

Despite years of background checks by the U.S. government, Zeller and Shenwary believe that someone from the Taliban filed a report with National Counterterrorism Center and had the visa flagged for review. “If they were doing their job properly, they would have checked the credibility of the informant,” Zeller said. “They just see the one little thing that comes across their desk and their job is to stop everything.”

Zeller is urging U.S. officials to reinstate Shenwary’s visas, before the Taliban finds him.