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For Years, the U.S. Failed to Protect Thousands Who Risked Everything in Iraq and Afghanistan

Sep 11, 2018 | 681 videos
Video by Daniel Klein

Matt Zeller joined the U.S. Army after 9/11. “The idea of not serving at that moment was something I couldn’t fathom,” Zeller says in a new short documentary, premiering on The Atlantic today. Directed by Hunter Johnson and Daniel Klein, Brother is the poignant story of a heroic act that led to a life debt, an indelible friendship, and, ultimately, a fierce fight to rectify a betrayal by the U.S. State Department.


On April 28, 2008, Captain Zeller, his company of 15 soldiers, and one of their Afghan translators, Janis Shinwari, were ambushed by 50 Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. “I was 26 years old and I realized, ‘I’m gonna die here. Right now. I die today,’” says Zeller in the film. Then, Shinwari noticed two fighters approaching Zeller from behind. In a split second, the translator body-checked the captain to the ground, shot the approaching fighters, and dragged Zeller to safety. “All of the sudden, there was this guy, standing right over me,” Zeller remembers. “He gave me the gift of life in the most fundamental way.” Zeller didn’t even know his name.


More than 50,000 local interpreters aided U.S. troops on the ground during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “When we were in firefights, we noticed early on that the Taliban would shoot the vast majority of their bullets at our translators first because they understood that those were the critical links between us and the ability to accomplish our mission,” Zeller says in the film. “Janis was my cultural barometer, my cultural ambassador, my filter. He was more important to our survival than our weapons.”


Iraqi and Afghan translators served at a great personal risk. After their service, their lives—and those of their families—were in imminent danger. Many were indeed killed by insurgents who viewed them as traitors. As a result, the State Department, under the direction of Senator Ted Kennedy shortly before his death, created the Special Immigrant Visa Program, designed to issue asylum to interpreters and their families. But as Zeller and Shinwari would soon come to realize, the program was an empty promise.


When he arrived stateside, Zeller learned Shinwari was receiving specific and targeted death threats. He decided to apply for a Special Immigrant Visa for Shinwari. Four years later, they were still waiting. That’s when Zeller decided to issue a clarion call to Congress. “The only way to get his visa was to publicly embarrass the government into doing the right thing,” Zeller told The Atlantic in a recent interview. “It took public shaming.” Ultimately, Zeller said he enlisted at least eight congressmen in the effort to obtain a visa for Janis.


According to Zeller and other U.S. Army officials, members of the State Department led what Zeller describes as “a concerted effort among a cabal of government officials who are against this program to ineffectively administer this program and ensure that those who had earned these visas were not actually receiving them.” Looking at the sheer numbers, Zeller said that this was relatively easy to prove. “From 2009 to 2013, which were the first four years of the Afghan Visa Program, we could have given out, collectively, 6,000 visas to 6,000 entire families,” he said. “We actually gave out 890.” Until 2013, Zeller said, State Department officials maintained that nothing in the law compelled them to process an application; they were simply required to make applications available.


Within nine months of Shinwari’s arrival—facilitated by personally involving members of Congress—Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged the State Department’s failure in an op-ed with the LA Times. “It was basically mea culpa,” said Zeller. “From 2014 on, our country has given out 4,000 visas per year. The change in all of that was because of the congressional attention that we brought to bear on Janis’s case.”


“If you wonder why this is so important,” Zeller continued, “it’s really simple: I’m only alive talking to you today because my Afghan translator saved my life in a battle 10 years ago. I asked him point-blank, ‘Janis, would you ever have signed up to serve with the Americans if you didn’t believe us to be honorable people who would keep our word?’ And he said no, absolutely not. So my fear is, if we don’t give these visas out—if we don’t keep this promise—the prevailing narrative around the world is that the Americans are liars who use you and then ultimately abandon you to the very people they asked you to help them fight against. All we have to do is have the courage and conviction to do the right thing.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of short films curated by The Atlantic