Unfit Interpreters

by Joshua Foust on 7/23/2009 · 5 comments

Last year, John McHugh, one of the absolute best reporters in Afghanistan, produced this video about the issues stemming from improperly-screened interpreters. I lucked out by working with “terps,” as they’re somewhat derisively called, who were honest about their language limitations. If one could only speak Pashto, or only knew Persian, he or she was honest. Some, unfortunately, are not, and that dishonesty—but just as importantly, Mission Essential Personnel, the company with a monopoly on interpreters in Afghanistan, was unable to screen them properly—can be dangerous. (As a side note, I met some guys who had found a Pashai-fluent interpreter, but he was assigned hundreds of miles away from any Pashai area because MEP didn’t screen for it.)

The AP, however, has noted another wrinkle in the interpreter saga: physical unfitness.

Habib is not a Marine. He is a 53-year-old engineer from California hired by a contracting company as a military translator. When he applied for the lucrative linguist job, Habib said his recruiter gave no hint he would join a ground assault in Taliban land. He carried 40 pounds of food, water and gear on his back, and kept pace — barely — with Marines half his age.

U.S. troops say companies that recruit military translators are sending linguists to southern Afghanistan who are unprepared to serve in combat, even as hundreds more are needed to support the growing number of troops.

I was amazed how the interpreter pool worked at Bagram. There is a separate village for them, over near TF Gladius’ camp and the Kapisa/Parwan PRT. If a unit needed an interpreter, they’d submit a request to the pool, and one at random would be selected. If the interpreter did something wrong in the eyes of the unit, they could “fire” him or her, which in some cases set up an incentive for the interpreter never to be wrong (like in that John McHugh video, above). The vast majority of interpreters, however, were decent people caught in the same impossible bureaucracy soldiers are.

There’s another angle to this as well. Why is it, almost eight years into this war, we are reduced to tapping our septuagenarian Afghan population for translation services? Even in an incredibly difficult language like Pashto, that’s more than enough time to have a corps of Pashto speakers. There is a Pashto track at DLI, and as foreign service officers like Alison Blosser indicate, the State Department, too, is capable of training its employees in difficult and obscure languages.

In other words, the bare institutions for developing an appropriate language capacity are there, yet it really only seems like MARSOC is developing them as a permanent capability. There is no excuse for the military (and State Department!) to have fallen down in adequately training their people for this fight.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Anon July 23, 2009 at 7:44 am

The Pashto teaching staff at DLI is excellent, but talking to them, it’s perfectly clear why there isn’t a large Pashto program there: all the resources have been going to Arabic since 2001. And even then, my understanding is that a lot of the DLI-trained people don’t end up in the field, they end up in front of a computer.

el-belle July 23, 2009 at 9:10 am

The problem here seems to be much more on the side of MEP, and the bureaucracy in general. The image of the interpreter pool reminds me of nothing so much as the secretary pool in gram greene’s “our man in havanna”…

Also, am I being naive in thinking that having the translators off in their own camp would make it harder for either the troops they are working with or the local population to form interpersonal relationships that would increase trust and truthfulness?

AJK July 23, 2009 at 1:09 pm

I just graduated from the Studies of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) center at Maryland, and a running joke since the focus on Afghanistan by this administration has been, “The Intel Community is going to be in so much trouble when they find out that Arabic isn’t spoken in Afghanistan.”

michaelhancock July 25, 2009 at 6:06 am

MEP put out a broad call for employment through Indiana University’s Central Eurasian Studies listserv. Pashto and Dari are taught, and have been taught, and the employment call is basically a pornography ad: $200,000/year plus full benefits, signing bonuses, the works, you just need to be “fluent in Dari and Pashto and English.” Hmmmmm…. Fluent is such an interesting word. If you’re sending it to a grad school, you’re gonna get people learning these languages as 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th languages… and for $200,000/year, you’d think anyone would want to learn that language.

I think the problem is that it’s only a war-time scenario, and once the US declares “victory,” you’ll be left with language skills you didn’t really want in the first place [if you learned them for the ridiculous Presidential salary, that is]…

And if Kazakh and other lesser-taught-languages offer any model, it’s not like we’re swimming in language materials over here. Language Pedagogy is important – you need to know How to Learn and How to Teach these languages.

In short, I agree it’s a problem, and throwing money at the problem is perhaps not the most effective solution.

Nanu July 28, 2009 at 4:39 pm

If US declares “victory” why you didn’t say if US declares either victory or defeat, didn’t you think about that at all.

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