"Englishman! Englishman!" the two men called out, as they approached on a quiet road in Kabul.
E — his name has been withheld at his request, for security reasons — had just left his friend's workshop, and was walking to catch a bus home on a late afternoon last October.
The two men shouted for E to stop, and he did. After a few moments, one of them shot E in the leg. Then they beat him — until a third man, who had been watching from afar, told them to stop. "It's fine," the watcher said. "That is enough for him, for now."
E thinks the men were Taliban militants, though he can't be sure.
The men were strangers to him, but their invective of choice — "Englishman! Englishman!" — made clear that they knew who E was, or at least who he had worked for. From 2010 to 2012, E served as an interpreter for the British Armed Forces in Afghanistan. He worked largely in Helmand province, where some of the most savage battles of the 13-year-long Afghan war played out before him.
E told VICE News his story from Kabul, some three months after being shot — and shortly after getting in touch with lawyers at a London law firm, Leigh Day, which was able to verify his employment with British forces. As we spoke, E's voice grew louder and more indignant. "What will you do for me?" he charged.
E is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Afghans who could benefit from a legal challenge currently making its way through Britain's High Court, which will begin to be heard in March. It is brought on behalf of two men who worked as interpreters for British soldiers, and who say their service has left them in peril so great they can no longer remain in their country. The defendants in the case are a mighty trio indeed: Britain's Ministry of Defense (MOD), Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and Attorney General.
Since UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced the start of Britain's withdrawal from Afghanistan on December 19, 2012, stories like E's like have appeared with increasing regularity in British newspapers. The details of the alleged attacks are invariably different, but there are recurring themes: aggressive text messages, "night letters" delivered by shadowy Taliban agents, intimidated family members, abductions, beatings, beheadings, kill lists, public boasts on Taliban websites, and hurried flights out of town.
The next chapter in the interpreters' stories also tends to share a common narrative. The individual makes the treacherous trip to a secure compound in Kabul to file a report with the UK's Intimidation Investigation Unit, which deals with threats to Afghan civilians in Britain's employ. The interpreter insists that he is no longer safe in his country, and requests a transfer to Britain. And then he waits months for an answer — which eventually come backs negative.
The interpreter's recounted plight ends with the charge that Britain has abandoned him to the mercy of Taliban militants who are, even now, proving their resilience.
The crux of the case refers back to Britain's 2003-2009 engagement in Iraq. In 2007, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced "a package of financial payments" for the armed forces' former Iraqi employees, which sometimes entailed resettlement in Britain. Now, lawyers charge that Afghans have been dealt a lesser hand.
On Tuesday, Lord Justice Sullivan of the UK Court of Appeals ruled that the Afghan claimants can challenge whether the government's failure to provide Afghan and Iraqi interpreters with equal schemes was discriminatory, reversing an earlier High Court decision.
The government is fighting these charges tooth and nail; its lawyers have dismissed the suit as "entirely artificial" and requested that the Afghan claimants foot their legal bill.
In E's case, he asked British officials to relocate him out of Afghanistan, where he no longer feels safe. Instead, he said, he was offered $1,000, by agents who "looked as if they were in a rush."
E started working for British forces when he was just a teenager. At first, he had wanted to work for American soldiers, but he changed his mind when it came time to enlist. He found the British soldiers harder to understand, and he wanted to challenge himself. Later, he said, British soldiers were "always saying that they were better than the Americans. … They were telling me, we are the only country that respects human rights." E said he believed them and he felt proud.
Years later, however, local civilians who worked for international forces in Afghanistan are in trouble. In the first six months of 2013, Afghanistan saw a sharp increase in Taliban attacks, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), including a rise in "targeted assassinations" of "civilians perceived to be supporting international military forces and/or the Afghan Government."
Interpreters, in particular, are sought-after targets, since their frontline work gave them local notoriety. According to the 2010 Taliban Code of conduct, as cited by UNAMA, "the infidel's translators" should receive the death penalty.
On top of this, the security situation is Kabul continues to deteriorate as the last foreign combat soldiers pull out, and the Taliban seizes control of districts that coalition forces once held.
A July 2013 article in UK daily The Times quoted an anonymous British officer as saying that "at least five interpreters (who worked for UK forces) had been murdered," and that others had gone missing "possibly as a result of Taliban assassination." In recent years, around 200 of Britain's former Locally Employed Civilians (LECs) have asked the country's officials in Kabul for help.
Beginning in 2012, Britain was accused of responding to those pleas with apathy. In April 2013, General Sir Mike Jackson, former head of the British Army, and others wrote an open letter in The Times, arguing that Britain had a "moral obligation" to do more. In June of that year, under mounting public pressure, Britain became the last NATO country to extend blanket aid to a specific section of Afghan employees, via its "Ex-Gratia Scheme."
The one-off assistance program offers Afghans the choice of money, a training package or, in some cases, resettlement in the UK with their families.
About 850 Afghans are automatically eligible for the scheme, the government estimates, with more than 150 visas issued as of January 2015, according to a government spokesperson. But package applies only to those who were actively employed by British forces on December 19 2012, when Prime Minister David Cameron announced his Afghanistan drawdown. LECs must have served for at least 12 months, and have worked in "frontline" positions, "outside the wire." Many interpreters don't make the cut.
The process is also a slow one. As of June 2014, more than a year after the Ex-Gratia program was announced, Britain had issued only two visas. An MOD spokesperson told VICE News that the relocation process takes around a year. "It's just bureaucracy," she acknowledged. But the criticism endures, and on two levels: that Britain doesn't take reports of Taliban intimidation seriously and that the government is too stingy in its provision of UK visas to former Afghan LECs. Attacks on UK government policy have mounted, especially since Washington — reluctantly and after much tortured delay — last year began ramping up the number of visas it doles out to its former Afghan interpreters.
It's unclear exactly how many Afghans worked for the British mission between 2001 and 2014, when UK combat operations in the country were called to a close. This is because the MOD is consistently cagey about releasing statistics. An MOD spokesperson told VICE News that since 2001, Britain has employed approximately 3800 Afghan civilians, but that she didn't know how many had worked as interpreters. "We haven't got that broken down."
That seems odd, since, at least as early as 2010, British departments in Afghanistan were told — via the "Intimidation of Locally Employed Staff: Policy Framework" — that they "must keep full and detailed employment and personnel records of all staff they locally employ in Afghanistan."
A government spokesperson told VICE News that Britain is supporting its ex-interpreters "in a number of ways." And it is. For instance, eight former employees have been given funds to relocate within Afghanistan.
A second scheme, the "Intimidation Policy" introduced in 2010, responds specifically to former staff members who are being bullied and menaced by insurgents. Applicants are considered on an individual basis, and need to plead their case before British officials, within five years of their employment. But of the 200 that have applied so far, only one has qualified for UK resettlement.
The Intimidation Policy program also has glitches. It uses a traffic light categorization system, which classifies threats on a Green/Amber/Red scale. The "vast majority" are reportedly classified as Green, but the government has not issued any guidelines on how those decisions are reached. Lawyer Rosa Curling says that some Afghans who have received Taliban death threats have perplexingly been classified as "Green" — and advised merely to change their phone numbers or switch up their routes to work.
Any claim of intimidation is tricky to process. To be considered for UK transfer, a former interpreter has to prove he is now in jeopardy as a direct result of that employment — to such an extent that that the "significant and imminent threat… cannot be mitigated in country."
But the Intimidation Policy errs on the side of doing less, rather than more, for the Afghans — and on strictly limiting relocation to Britain. The government's 2010 Intimidation Policy Framework advised departments to exercise caution when reviewing Afghan cases, since "any action they take might prove unachievable or unaffordable for another department in the future."
Recently, a slew of former and serving British soldiers have made appeals on behalf of their former interpreters, complaining that the assistance schemes are lacking. Alex Perkins — a former infantry platoon commander in Afghanistan, known best as Sir Winston Churchill's great-grandson — delivered a petition on the subject to Cameron in 2013. The move nabbed headlines, after Perkins wrote: "My great-grandfather Winston Churchill… would have been shocked by the way our government is treating men who risked their lives to help British forces."
The Afghan interpreters are also a pet cause in Britain's upper parliamentary chamber, the House of Lords, whose members wax remorseful about the "shameful" and "mean-spirited" state of UK policy. Admiral Lord West of Spithead, a former British commander in chief, told VICE News that he blames the Home Office for the government's "appalling" failings. At a December House of Lords session, Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon called the government's response "discreditable and even Kafkaesque."
Asked to respond to these charges, a Home Office representative told VICE News: "Every effort is being taken to process these applications quickly."
All along, the government has brushed off criticism. In December, Defense Minister Lord Astor of Hever called Britain's Afghan civilian policy "a good news story." He also stated that Afghans who are resettled in Britain would receive "generous" help integrating into British life. "Before they leave," he told the House of Lords, "we give staff an information pack on living in the UK and offer a question-and-answer session."
Britain's policy stance is likely swayed by the wishes of the Afghan administration itself. Former UK Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond told MPs last June that the Afghan government "wants to encourage local staff to stay in Afghanistan" — as opposed to, say, the Iraqi government, which put up no such opposition about the relocation of interpreters after Britain left Iraq. Certainly, the former employees — multi-lingual and educated — are good contenders for future leadership roles in the country.
In May 2013, in an interview with BBC, Prime Minister Cameron opined: "I do think when we think of all that we have spent and all the cost in money and human lives we have put into Afghanistan, we should do everything we can to encourage talented Afghans to stay in their country and contribute to it."
Many government critics seem to accept, without scrutiny, the hazy notion that any local civilian who works for British forces during a foreign battle is consequently entitled to live in the UK after the fact. That has never been so. Indeed, lawyer Rosa Curling, of London's Leigh Day law firm, who represents the two Afghan interpreters in the High Court case, concedes that when her clients took jobs with British forces in Afghanistan, they weren't made any assurances about their lives after the war. "Absolutely none," she acknowledged. They were paid well too: sometimes upwards of $1500/month, in a country where GDP per capita hovers around $650.
But then again, the Afghan war didn't end the way that British forces hoped it would. "When they took on the interpreters 10 years ago," said Curling, "the allies didn't think the Taliban would be coming back."
In the face of that continued threat, one of the claimants in the case, 28-year-old Mohammed Rafi Hotak, decided that he couldn't wait around.
Rafi started working for British forces as an interpreter in 2006, but less than a year later, the car he was driving in was blown up by an Improved Explosive Device (IED). At the time, Rafi says that he was only wearing "a piece of cloth and one small plate to protect my heart" — as opposed to his British colleagues, who wore full body armor. Rafi's body was mangled, and still is. His left ear is rattled by banging sound that never goes away, and which keeps him up at night. After the attack, Rafi became a recruiter of interpreters, and conducted training for Afghan Special Forces.
Several years ago, Rafi started receiving routine death threats from Taliban militants and was attacked on several occasions. The insurgents called his phone and threatened his father and delivered haunting letters to his house. Rafi asked British officials for a UK visa, but was denied.
Rafi told VICE News that he had no choice but to hire traffickers to smuggle him out of the country: a chancy tactic employed that is now popular with disenchanted ex-interpreters. He paid them $15,000 up front: "All my savings… for my children and family." The journey took around a month, and proceeded via a winding route: a flight to Istanbul; crowded and hungry boat rides to Italy, then France, then Britain; trains and cars. On the boat from Turkey to Italy, Rafi didn't eat or drink for five days.
When he got to the UK, Rafi applied for asylum but was kept in legal limbo for over a year. Eventually, his application for asylum was rejected — and then, in an embarrassing about-face, reversed and accepted. But his wife and small children are still stuck back home.
Today, Rafi is a qualified accountant and works as an accounts clerk a few hours' drive from London. He is still in touch with some of the British officers who he worked with in Afghanistan. They visit him sometimes, and invite him over for Christmas.
Since his suit began, his lawyer Curling says she's been contacted by around one new former interpreter a week: sometimes, in the form of frantic calls from Afghanistan. If the case succeeds, the government will be forced to extend the Iraqi assistance scheme to Afghans, or to create a comparable program.
The government is wrestling this. In its "Summary Grounds of Resistance," dated February 14, 2014 and recently reviewed by VICE News, government lawyers said "it is entirely artificial" for Afghan LECs "to contend that they are 'excluded' from the [Iraq] scheme" because of their nationality. The government also insists that it adept at handling "on-going risks" in Afghanistan via the Intimidation Policy, the equivalent of which does not exist in Iraq.
Rafi sees the lawsuit as his only shot at being reunited with his wife and kids. And he has another reason, too, to champion the cause: a few months ago, he came across an online video of some of his friends being beheaded by the Taliban. The executed men, he says, were fellow interpreters.
Follow Katie Engelhart @katieengelhart