In counterinsurgency, the most
important thing is winning over the local population. Gen. Stanley
McChrystal, the commander in charge of all NATO forces in Afghanistan,
was right to warn that a “crisis of confidence among Afghans” imperils the effort to rebuild the country.
For most American troops, however, the only connection they have to the
locals — whether soldiers in the Afghan army or villagers they’re
trying to secure — is through their interpreters.
United States Army doctrine describes interpreters as “vital,” which
is fairly obvious given the bevy of languages spoken in Afghanistan:
Dari, Pashto, Tajik, Uzbek and others. Yet the way the military uses
translators is too often haphazard and sometimes dangerously negligent.
Many units consider interpreters to be necessary evils, and even those
who are Americans of Afghan descent are often scorned or mistreated for
being too obviously “different.”
Mission Essential Personnel, the primary contractor providing
interpreters in Afghanistan, has basic guidelines: interpreters need to
be given a place to sleep, for example, and fed. But beyond that, how
they are treated is often left up to the individual unit. Many times,
they are treated the way they should be: as vital members of a team.
Sometimes, however, they are shockingly disrespected.
Earlier this year, I traveled through central Afghanistan as a
civilian member of an American Provincial Reconstruction Team. We had a
translator — we called her Brooklyn — who had been born and raised in
California. During the initial briefing before our convoy set out,
however, the team’s commander, an Air Force colonel, demanded that
Brooklyn leave the briefing area, referring to her as “that local
The briefing slides were marked “SECRET,” which caused the colonel
understandable alarm. Brooklyn, however, had a security clearance
allowing her to be present. Perhaps the real problem was that she wore
a headscarf, as one would expect a pious Muslim woman to do.
The next day, as we were driving between two bases, we ran into a
traffic snarl at a bridge, with dozens of Afghan soldiers and police
officers milling about. Our colonel, who had left his own translator
back at his base, got out of his Humvee and asked Brooklyn to begin
translating for him. After discussing the issue with the Afghan forces,
she explained that they had found several bombs underneath the bridge,
and were waiting for an American bomb disposal team to arrive. They had
likely saved our lives, but we got that message only because we had an
interpreter, the one the colonel had treated like an enemy spy the
“Your interpreter is way more important than your weapon,” Cory
Schulz, an Army major who led a tactical team embedded with Afghan
troops in Paktika Province, told me. With an interpreter, he explained,
you can command hundreds of Afghan soldiers; with a gun, you can only
Interpreters do more than talk and listen. Eight years into the war
in Afghanistan, United States troops receive only minimal cultural
training before they deploy. Thus interpreters often serve as cultural
advisors — helping Americans learn the nuances of typical Afghan
Major Schulz said of his “terp,” as they’re often called, “he saved
my life more than once.” Once the interpreter helped his unit identify
a suicide bomber in a large crowd before the man could activate the
explosives in his vest. The would-be bomber was acting nervously in a
way that Afghans could recognize but that Americans were oblivious to,
and the translator picked up on it.
American troops in some isolated parts of Afghanistan have little
hope of such guidance. In March I met some officers at Bagram Air Force
Base, north of Kabul, who were trying to find an interpreter who spoke
Pashai; the Pashai represent only about 1 percent of Afghanistan’s
population, but live in some of the most violent and insurgency-ridden
areas of the country’s northeast.
Mission Essential Personnel couldn’t supply anyone who spoke the
language, the officers told me, yet they felt that being able to speak
to the Pashai could prove important for the war effort. So they went to
the camp on the outskirts of Bagram where many interpreters live and
found one who could speak the rare language. (Later I was told that he
had been assigned to a battalion in Khost, 100 miles south of any
Pashai-speaking areas, because he also spoke Pashto.)
American officers and enlisted soldiers repeatedly told me how
vital interpreters are. Yet there remains no standardized way for units
to use them, which can lead to insulting incidents like the one
Brooklyn had to endure.
Often, the insults are more subtle, but more personal. In Khost
Province, I met an interpreter named Afzal, who worked for a team of
Army civilians doing economic and cultural research. Afzal had helped
this team for several years, through three rotations of leadership and
personnel. He had been trying for a long time to get a visa from the
State Department to come to the United States, something many
interpreters hope for because of threats to their families. Eventually,
extremists began posting threatening letters on his door overnight.
Afzal told me that two years earlier, the team’s leader, a
lieutenant colonel, had promised to submit the paperwork for the visa
and vouch for his status as an interpreter, but he apparently never
did. The next team leader, another officer, made the same promise, but
also apparently never followed through. It was not until the arrival of
the third team leader, a civilian, early this year that Afzal was able
to submit his application. The delay has complicated the procedure —
for this year the State Department cut the number of available visas
for interpreters from Afghanistan and Iraq to 50 from 500.
Brooklyn told me that the occasional grumpy officer wasn’t her only
problem. She also complained about Mission Essential Personnel’s sloppy
management, saying that the company tended to hire elderly
interpreters, unsuited for rough travel in a war zone, just because
they passed a language test. She said the contractor was unresponsive
to complaints of sexual harassment and mistreatment.
There is also a growing number of stories of local interpreters who
have been denied medical treatment. According to CorpWatch, a group
that monitors military contractors, an interpreter named Basir Ahmed
was fired for “failing to show up for work” last year when he was
recuperating from shrapnel wounds to his leg received from a homemade
bomb that exploded while he was on patrol with American forces near the
In winning hearts and minds, how we treat Afghans as individuals
matters more than how many Taliban we kill or how many roads we build.
If we cannot treat our military interpreters with basic respect, why
should Afghan civilians trust us to help them remake their nation?
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