KABUL, Afghanistan -- The first time the Taliban tried to kill him, Sulaiman was driving to his base when his truck was hit by a rocket, knocking him down a cliff.
The insurgents knew his vehicle, its license plate number and, most important, his occupation: a high-value combat interpreter for United States Special Operations troops in Afghanistan.
They left him for dead in that attack, in July 2011, but he got out with a broken collarbone, two broken ribs and a new sense of caution. Since then, he has survived two more attacks.
Sulaiman's American supervisor no longer lets him travel by car when he leaves his military base to visit his family. But no one feels that is protection enough, given the premium that the Taliban put on killing Afghans who help American forces.
His best hope is one that has remained beyond his grasp despite years of effort: an American visa.
Sulaiman is one of thousands of Afghans who have directly aided the Western military mission here and are waiting to hear from the State Department on the special immigration visa applications. In Iraq, Congressional legislative action helped thousands of at-risk Iraqis get out, but Afghans find themselves in a more difficult situation, with fewer visas and fewer options.
Now, the backlog is growing. As the American pullout hits full pace and bases across the country are shut down, hundreds of Afghans have suddenly found themselves without jobs, leaving them without military protection despite the continued risk of attack by the Taliban.
The danger is especially real for the estimated 8,000 interpreters who have worked for the Americans. Though no one tracks the targeted violence figures, anecdotal evidence is grim -- at least a few people are said to be killed each month. In February, two interpreters were gunned down in Logar Province south of Kabul, the same province where Sulaiman was first attacked. In December, an interpreter working in Jalalabad was singled out while heading home on leave. The Taliban killed his two brothers in the attack.
Sulaiman, 26, who asked to be identified only by his first name so as not to put his family at greater risk, is one of the relatively lucky ones. He is still employed, and his American military colleagues are working hard to help him.
But he is still waiting. He believes a 2008 visa application was lost in the bureaucratic ether. A second application, in late 2011, yielded an embassy interview last year. Since then, though, he has received automated responses to his entreaties. The State Department declined to talk about his case.
Several of his Special Operations colleagues have fired off letters imploring the State Department to expedite his application, adding to the stack of recommendations lauding his skills and courage.
"If this takes too long, if there is an error somewhere, he's compromised and his family is compromised," said his current supervisor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of security reasons. "We kind of feel like we're watching the clock wind down right now."
The urgency among Afghans to receive visas mirrors the situation in Iraq on the eve of the American military pullout there. Only in Iraq, the system, while still problematic, has been better equipped to deal with the visa situation brought on by the withdrawal, thanks to the intervention of lawmakers, including Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 2008.
Among the disparities between the programs are the number of visas available -- 7,500 in Afghanistan versus 25,000 in Iraq; the family members eligible to join the applicant -- strictly wife and dependent children in Afghanistan versus parents, siblings and all children in Iraq. Other differences include the additional avenues for recourse -- almost none for Afghans, versus the ability to apply directly to the United States for refugee status as an Iraqi.
So far, about 22 percent of the available visas for Iraqis have been granted, according to a letter to the State Department and White House from concerned members of Congress. The figure is closer to 12 percent for Afghans, the letter states.
"In my opinion, the story in Afghanistan is a sorry, shabby echo of what's happening in Iraq," said Kirk W. Johnson, the founder of the List Project, an organization that assists Iraqi refugees in obtaining visas to the United States.
Thousands of Afghan applicants are caught in an approval process that lasts more than two years. As many as 5,000 were waiting to begin the process as of last fall.
The State Department declined to comment on the number of applications submitted, the backlog or any phase of the visa approval process. Privately, some officials say the consular division has doubled resources to increase its processing ability, though that has not been publicly announced or confirmed.
To kick-start the process, some American lawmakers say that as early as this month, they plan to introduce legislation to extend the timeline for visa programs in Iraq and Afghanistan and to broaden the type of family members who can come along.
"The extension and reform of these programs is a matter of national security, and these programs represent an important tool for the U.S. operations in Afghanistan," according to a March 5 letter sent to the White House and the State Department, signed by 19 members of Congress.
Among the things that will not change is that Afghans who worked for American companies, including the news media and nongovernmental organizations, will still not be eligible for the special visas, even though such Iraqis are eligible. And legislators are not seeking additional visas for Afghans.
As it stands, issuing the available visas has been hard enough.
State Department figures through December suggest the agency would have to grant about 1,200 visas a month to use all 7,500 visas before the so-called Afghan Allies program expires at the end of fiscal year 2013. Put another way, consular officials would need to issue more than four times the visas they did in their most productive year, 2009, every month.
State Department officials say there is no priority given to certain applications -- such a measure would be hard to enforce fairly.
Still, Sulaiman's situation would seem to present a clear-cut case of need.
He has been working with the Americans for 10 years. When he was 16, he caught the attention of a Special Operations team by confronting them in English as they walked through his neighborhood. Amused, they asked him if he wanted a job. He started training immediately.
Since then, he has worked as a combat interpreter for coalition forces in all but four provinces across the country, translating battle strategy to Afghan forces in the middle of firefights and high-level meetings with elders in contested villages, among other efforts. He has been on more than 300 missions, and his ties to Special Operations put him in even more danger than most interpreters.
The job has also cost him a sense of identity. Having spent so much of his adolescent years around American military bases, he struggles to relate to other Afghans. At times, he seems almost startlingly American: he speaks English with a faint Midwestern accent and wears a North Face jacket. Everyone on base calls him Sam. "I've spent more time inside the base with Americans than I have with my family," Sulaiman said. "I feel more at home on the base."
His commitment, his supervisors say, has never wavered. If he makes it to the United States, he hopes to join the military and attend the Army Ranger School.
"I could ask Sam to do anything tomorrow, and he wouldn't even blink," his American supervisor said.
But Sulaiman's desperation is growing. In December, fearing another attack, he sent another e-mail to the American Embassy in Kabul. In it, he explained that he had not been able to go home for months because of the risk to him and his family, and implored them to look at his visa application again.
An auto-reply arrived in his in-box a few hours later: his application required further processing.
"Individuals who believe they are in peril in their place of residence should consider leaving that location and moving to another nearby safe place, inside or outside the country," the e-mail said.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.