Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Fighting an insurgency: you are only as good as your interpreter

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AFGHANISTANSome of my nastiest moments as a war correspondent in the Caucasus and Central Asia had nothing to do with bullets, explosions or tanks. It is one thing to cover a conflict where you speak the language and quite another when you don’t. Working with a poor interpreter is worrisome at best, downright dangerous at worst.

I got by most of the time by speaking Russian, which is not an option in Afghanistan today. A recent PBS documentary on the conflict showed a U.S. squad in one isolated village having great difficulty making itself understood properly because the interpreter was second-rate.

This set me wondering. How do foreign troops work effectively in a place riven by factionalism and tribal conflicts, a place where interpreters can be threatened and even killed? How do they know the people translating for them are doing an even halfway decent job?

The Canadian military, which has 2,700 troops in the violent southern city of Kandahar, recently issued a large counter-insurgency manual. The Canadians have had a rough time, losing 131 soldiers so far, proportionately more than any other nation involved in combat. The manual is serious, comprehensive and well thought-out, explaining the importance of communication with locals. Nowehere does it mention the possibility that the locals may not always understand what you are trying to say.

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