Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Half a billion dollars for Afghan interpreters

May 17, 2010
(An Afghan interpreter with a U.S. army soldier in Kunar province.Reuters/Tim Wimborne)

(An Afghan interpreter with a U.S. army soldier in Kunar province.Reuters/Tim Wimborne)

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.


these interpreters are real heroes.

Posted by asif | Report as abusive

I think the wage difference between an American and an Afghan interpreter is terrible.

Further I think the Afghan should be given a pension in the us after 3 years, and after 6 months his family should be brought to the United States. If anything happens to him during his term as interpreter his family should be immediately brought to the US and given a lifetime pension.

We are treating these people like dirt, as expendible.

Posted by Art Merkl | Report as abusive

Americans do not give enough appreciation to these interpreters for our troops in all present and past wars, except maybe the late Ted Kennedy.

Posted by Jo | Report as abusive

Yet another example of why we should not invade and occupy independent soveign countries. Half a billion here a few more billion there,and all the politians can talk about is entitlement programs. Looking to save tax money? look no further.

Posted by Dane | Report as abusive

Sadly, most ‘US citizens of Afghan heritage’ left at the start of Soviet attack 30 years ago. They’re Americanized, anti-tribalist, exceptionalist, easily corruptable with no meaningful knowledge of nuance or current power structure, and are despised by native Afghans as surrender monkies.

Sadly, local Afghans know all too well the Afghans they are interrogating, as the people they are interrogating know them, their families and where they live. Their quality of intelligence and nuancing is strongly offset by the fear that at any moment they or their families will be assassinated if they get to close to high-value targets, two hundred drug families or Karzai gang of 100.

In the end, this is so ‘Viet Nam’, you can almost hear the helicopters coming and screams from the rooftops.

Posted by Mike Reynholds | Report as abusive

This is another case where our silly nationalistic buy American rules waste money. In operational service after service, from electricians, chefs, drivers to you name it – we are paying a FORTUNE to the middle man. We should open up RFP’s to vendors in other countries with strong Afghan connections such as India, Russia or Turkey.

I can hear the rebuttal now – “security concerns” or “taxpayer money to foreigners”. Whatever! it will be the same interpretor doing the same job for a lot less money.

Please everyone – fight the buy Pentagon American rule unless it involves real manufacturing – otherwise we are just giving away money. These rules make sense in our military industry complex in the US but are an incredible waste of money when we are procuring services in far away war zones.

Posted by John | Report as abusive

$679million for translaters in Afghanistan for the US is a spit in the ocean!!! The US spends $100′s of billions in US on mexican translation in all service industries and print!!! This is seperate from paying illegal mexicans welfare, healthcare, courtcare, incarceration, education etc. for them and their anchor babies!!! Next, we’ll see pancho villa on the $1 bill, cantinflas on the $5, pres cabron on the $10 and carlos slim on $100!!!!

Posted by muffdive | Report as abusive

Here is an opportunity for people of the right age to get trained to learn a very obscure language, work it until you are burned out, retrain and set out on your life’s work. You can make over a million dollars in five years, plus attractive benefits. If you are working OUTSIDE the United States, the first eighty-eight thousand dollars is TAX-FREE.It’s a pretty sweet deal if you can pass muster, hit the ground runnin’ and deal with the down side.

Posted by Jack Harrington | Report as abusive

Speaking about the U.S. interpreter programs requires caution. On one hand you can hire U.S. citizens that left the country upwards of 20 years ago, as someone stated, or you can hire a local who may or may not be trusted. The money paid to local interpreters is significant within the country and provides more than a living wage for entire families. The local interpreters are volunteers just like our forces and are well taken care of, even thought they are serving the same hours. The U.S. citizen interpreters are paid an exceptional amount due to the long periods of separation from their families. They also work long hours, even if they work on base, and they will often volunteer to work extra if needed. Do not discount their service. A military member trained in the local language is rarely better than a native that left 20 years ago. Do not doubt U.S. forces are trying to do the best they can with what they have.

Posted by A. Messersmith | Report as abusive

working wiht US means putting your life ar dangers even they pay $900 dollars for locat national terp but stil it is nothing for them if reallly want to bring peace adn security there if AFghanistan we really need high local people support if we think about USA benefite but we need to thinkg about who help US troops in Afghanistan
it is really hard for every one to put their life at risk for us they locat national terps are much better than afghan american terps because they know all military phrases which is a luck on afghan americans they will be able to speak a better english but there alots of them that dont any thing,about afghanistan people tridation adn culturs I highly recommmand local national terp for our troops safty and success of our mission there

Posted by john | Report as abusive

We are very happy to help our people and country,we sacrrifice our life for our country.
Note :
The company ( M.E.P ) who got INTERPRETERS Contract,it doesn’t pay enough salary to INTERPRETERS,that’s why most interpreters leaving there job bcz of salary.
I specially requesting from MEDIA’s to bring up this issue with U.S MINISTRY OF DEFENSE,bcz if they continue this process,one day nobody will be ready to work for M.E.P or COALITION FORCES.

Posted by Abdul Habib Brenzai | Report as abusive

hello all to US armed focess
thanks from amrican popele
i am working since 2004 up to now wath US forcess in afghanistan just i make 650$what you guys think about this bilion dollars go MEP copeny pied for afghan amrican interperter

Posted by obaid ahmady | Report as abusive

@obaid ahmady
you convert the green dollars into afghanis and that is a lot of money, not ignoring that free food and accomodation is provided to you. On top of that depending upon your work place you are able to obtain some poppy scent and sell it in the USA and that should earn you the pension after your retirement.

Posted by Rex Minor | Report as abusive

I have been working with US Armed forces since 2005, when I started to work I was paid 500$, and now I get 665$ and i work with MEP Company, compare to deferent companies we get paid less than all other companies, we accepts that this salary is higher compare to what our government pays, but we are at maximum risk. We afghan interpreters are like bridge between Afghans and Americans and they all should know the value of it. The more money you give your employee the better outcome you will have.

Posted by najib | Report as abusive


Posted by FARID | Report as abusive

Dear interpreters, there are thousands of afghan people like me whom not only appreciate your works but are your reall fans and don’t forget the names of international and national died people will be written in the history of Afghanistan with golden words.
I personally salute you all….!!!


we all appricate the US forces deplyed in Afghanistan.
I red some of the comments , left by my respecful and brave Afgahan brothers working with US troops,the mony that make in a month is not enough,even though I m not working with US forces, but its worth to mention that the US forces should incrase their pay check.
thanks from you all.

Posted by Javid | Report as abusive

Hello to all who run this website. I need to tell some thing This is my brother’s picture who used to work in Pach valley Kunnar province of Afghanistan.Please and i say it again please remove my brother’s picture. it can put his life in danger . Thanks a lot

Posted by afghani | Report as abusive

Let me tell you about the money that afghan interpreters make specially the locals ones . They make about 650$ per month . you know how much a decent house would cost in Kabul? the answer is about 300 000 $. let me ask you another question how much do you pay for a gallon of gas back in the states ? I pay about five $ for a gallon.The MEP exploits the localsinterpreters.They do not even treat the Interpreters well . let me tell you a story about my other brother who got IED strike at the east of Jlalabad . A month later of the IED strike he got fired from his job because he had appointment with doctors so he came to work late and they fired him while he was still in pain and his wounds were bleeding . Who should they ask from . MEP?

Posted by afghani | Report as abusive

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