Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Half a billion dollars for Afghan interpreters
Thousands of U.S. troops are streaming into Afghanistan each month as part of the surge, and among the things critical to their mission are the services of interpreters.
The U.S. army this month extended the contract of an Ohio-based company to provide translators for Afghanistan for another year at a cost of $679 million. U.S. and NATO commander Lt. General Stanley McChyrstal’s strategy for Afghanistan rests on winning the trust of the people and that can’t work if you don’t have enough people speaking any of their languages such as Pashto, Dari, Tajik, Uzbek.
The “terps”, as the soldiers call them in military slang, don’t just do literal translations, they provide insights into local culture and customs that are key to any attempt to win the people over. And above all, their ability to read the situation on the ground can often save lives.
So the military has turned to Mission Essential Personnel to recruit, screen and bring more than 5,000 interpreters into the battlefield. A handful of the translators are American citizens of Afghan descent, writes Noah Shactman on Danger Room blog. If they have the right language skills and can pass a security clearance, they can make up to $235,000 a year plus health benefits and their work is mostly “analysing communications” and “document exploitation” on one of of the big, comfortable U.S. bases in Afghanistan.
But the vast majority of the recruits are local Afghans, earning about $900 a month and their job is to accompany frontline troops into action, Shacktman says. These interpreters are given a week’s month’s worth of training before they’re shipped out to combat. Once there, they’re required to spend a year working 12-hour days, seven days a week, and be on-call during the remaining time.
It can be a gruelling schedule, and obviously dangerous. The danger is not just when they are out in the field with the troops. They are also targeted in their homes by the Taliban for working for foreign forces, and often their families are threatened.
This weekend the Taliban said they had kidnapped and killed four Afghan interpreters, including one on his wedding day, because they worked for Western troops in Khost province.