David Snepp knows that sooner or later thousands of Americans will be coming home from the war in Afghanistan. But he worries about the thousands of Afghans who won’t be able to go home themselves.
Those are people he worked with at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul or who served in support of American forces throughout the country. Because they worked with Americans, they’d likely be targets for retaliation from extremists.
A native Charlottean and former broadcaster, Snepp has started a nonprofit called Silk Road Leadership to help many resettle in the United States.
“From my perspective, a nation has a responsibility to take care of those who risked their lives for our country,” says Snepp, 53. “Giving them a visa is not enough. We’re trying to provide a softer landing … to help them become more productive citizens here in the U.S.”
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Snepp recently left Afghanistan after 3 1/2 years, though he’s returning for what he says will be a short tour as a consultant.
There he’ll also work to establish links with an Afghan partner to prepare the way for the new immigrants and provide orientation sessions in Kabul before they arrive in the U.S.
It’s the latest stop on a journey that’s taken Snepp from Charlotte to Washington and Kabul and careers in broadcasting, politics and diplomacy.
The road to Kabul
Snepp grew up in Charlotte, son of the late Superior Court Judge Frank Snepp. A graduate of South Mecklenburg High and Appalachian State University, he was a WBTV reporter in the early 1980s. He went on to work as press secretary for Republican U.S. Rep. Alex McMillan of Charlotte before returning to broadcasting as a Washington reporter for the parent company of WSOC TV.
After a decade in private business he went back to Capitol Hill, serving as spokesman for two Republican senators, George Allen of Virginia and Olympia Snowe of Maine.
It was in 2010 that he went to Afghanistan as a senior communications adviser with the Department of Defense. A year later he began working for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. He eventually became its spokesman and later served as a senior adviser.
At one point he supervised the largest U.S. Embassy press section in the world. In all those roles, he worked closely with Afghan counterparts and with reporters from around the world.
War was a constant presence.
In April 2013, a suicide car bombing killed a member of his press team, a 25-year-old diplomat and three U.S. soldiers. Among the wounded was an Afghan colleague, whom Snepp would call “one of my life’s dearest friends, confidante, and mentor.”
“He absolutely has always had a very deep affection for his Afghan friends and colleagues and has been very empathetic for the struggles they face,” says Masha Hamilton, then the embassy’s director of public diplomacy. “And that’s shown by what he’s trying to do.”
Providing a ‘soft landing’
When President Barack Obama was in Charlotte last week, he echoed his pledge that most U.S. troops will leave by the end of the year.
“In just four months,” he said, “we will complete our combat mission in Afghanistan, and America’s longest war will come to a responsible end.”
In July, Congress authorized an additional 1,000 Special Immigrant Visas, bringing the total to 4,000, for Afghans who helped Americans and who could face retaliation. To Snepp, that’s a start.
“Our nation needs to do more for these Afghan allies than simply hand out a visa,” he writes on Silk Road’s website. “Afghanistan, its culture, economy, educational system, and simple way of life are vastly different than our own. Arriving Afghans find themselves confused, disoriented, and unable to navigate life in the U.S.”
Snepp, who is raising money for Silk Road, hopes the group can help at least half the expected special visa recipients. That’s how many he believes have no family or friends already in America. They’re the most at-risk group. They include women with no experience being on their own.
Snepp says most of the Afghans coming to the U.S. speak English, though their families may not. Many worked as translators or advisers. But they need help adapting to life in a new country, from navigating the health care and educational systems to financial counseling.
“There’s been a lot of concern that a lot of brave, valiant Afghans were essentially being given short shrift,” says Michael Kugelman, a senior program associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “Any initiative that tries to facilitate the ability of Afghans who come, particularly those who’ve helped the U.S., is a wonderful idea.”
Snepp’s latest effort doesn’t surprise his friends.
“David inherited a flair for both justice and politics,” says Paul Cameron, a news anchor at WBTV. “He was a smart, ambitious and driven reporter. … I think David Snepp wanted to make a difference in life, and by all metrics, he has.”