Kabul: Before serving as an interpreter for the US military, Shafiq Nazari passed exhaustive background checks by both military and intelligence agencies.
The military trusted him enough to issue him an automatic rifle. He has fired it during several battles with insurgents, fighting shoulder to shoulder with US soldiers and Marines on about 200 combat missions in Afghanistan.
Mr Nazari, 38, a compact man with short-cropped hair and a trim black beard, has been issued a badge that gives him free run of a high-security US base in downtown Kabul, where he translates for US military advisers. He has 70 letters of recommendation from American officers, including two generals, praising his loyalty and courage under fire.
But none of that has been enough to persuade the US State Department to grant a visa to Mr Nazari under a program for Afghan interpreters whose lives are in danger because of their service to the United States. Mr Nazari says he has been waiting nearly five years for approval of his application for a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV.
With the looming withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, thousands of Afghans who have served as military interpreters are in limbo as the State Department works to clear a backlog of SIV applications. Congress had authorised 8750 visas for Afghan interpreters, but only 1982 had been issued by December last year.
For Mr Nazari, who has worked for the U.S. military since 2006, years of waiting have left him confused and demoralised - and at risk of retaliation from insurgents who he says know what he does.
"We're living in the 21st century," Mr Nazari said, speaking flawless English while sipping tea at a Kabul guesthouse. "If the State Department wants to find out if I'm a bad guy or a terrorist, just check their computer databases. It should take five minutes, not five years."
Sardar Khan, 26, who has translated for the US military since 2007, said he has waited nearly two years for a decision on his SIV application. He jokes that he and other applicants have "SIV syndrome" from constantly checking a State Department website for updates on their cases.
"We have already proved our honesty and loyalty to the United States," Mr Khan said. "All we ask now is for the United States to return the favour."
Jarrett Blanc, deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the State Department improved its processing times last year and has issued more Afghan interpreter visas during the latest fiscal year than in any previous year, a tenfold increase over 2012. In the last three months of the fiscal year that ended on October 1, he said, the US Embassy in Kabul issued more interpreter visas than in the previous four years.
The department has also begun an appeals process for interpreters turned down at the embassy level, sped up the visa process for approved applicants and is doing more to spread word about the SIV program.
"We are committed to helping those who - at great personal risk - have helped us," Mr Blanc said.
Officials are concerned that Afghans with ties to insurgents or terrorists will slip through the vetting process. The 2011 arrests of two Iraqi refugees in Kentucky on terrorism charges slowed the visa process, though neither had been an interpreter.
The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project calls the SIV process "prohibitively complicated, bureaucratic and opaque." The group, which also assists Afghans, says more than 5000 Afghan applicants are backlogged. It says only 6675 of the 25,000 visas authorised for Iraqi interpreters have been issued.
In December, Congress extended the Iraq SIV program through to September 30, but failed to extend the Afghan program, which is set to expire at the same time.
Interpreters are the eyes and ears for US troops, few of whom speak Afghan languages or comprehend Afghan culture. So-called terps do far more than just translate. They help US commanders navigate the bewildering tribal and family alliances that dominate Afghan culture, while also guiding them through fraught relationships with their allies in the Afghan army and police.
And in many cases, they wear US. uniforms, carry weapons and fight alongside American troops. .
"To be honest, without Shafiq we would have been lost," said Army Major Michael Lee, who worked with Mr Nazari in eastern Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009. "His ability to explain the issues between the different tribes and ethnic groups helped me understand the problems we were having."
The jobs come with enormous risks. Hundreds of Afghan interpreters have been killed or wounded by insurgents. Even though many interpreters wear masks, they are well-known in their hometowns or villages. The Taliban has repeatedly warned interpreters that they and their families will be killed unless they stop working for Americans.
Mr Nazari said he has been threatened several times. After he translated an interrogation of an insurgent by a USspecial operations officer, he said, the suspect told him: "You will be in my mind forever. When I'm released, I will find you and kill you."
The American Embassy in Kabul has rejected 20 per cent of SIV applicants, saying they had not documented a credible threat linked to their service to the United States.
For Mr Nazari and Mr Khan, time is running out. They fear they will be left jobless and unprotected when all US combat troops are out of Afghanistan by December. A security agreement that would keep some US forces here is threatened by a political stalemate.
Mr Nazari said American officers had interceded on his behalf, but to no avail. He harbours no bitterness and remains hopeful of a new life in America for himself, his wife and two children. Immediate families are included in the program.
"We love American troops and the American people," he said. "It's the visa system that sucks."
Los Angeles Times