Earlier this year, I was going out on a patrol through central Afghanistan with some colleagues. We were hitching a ride with the local PRT. As is normal, the night before the patrol, we all gathered near the PRT operations center for a briefing on what to encounter. The colonel running the PRT saw us cultural advisers coming and flattened his lips. While giving the weather report, our interpreter came up.
Now this interpreter was an American, born and raised in Sacramento, to parents originally from an Eastern majority-Pashtun province. She could speak Pashto reasonably well, and was steadily improving. She also had a Secret security clearance, so she could participate in mission briefings without any concerns about operational security. She also wore a scarf around her head, as is generally considered normal for a modest Muslim woman.
To this PRT colonel, however, that meant Terrorist. He wouldn’t let her near the open-air briefing, demanding, despite our protestations, that she basically sit in a corner while we went over such top secret information as which route we’d be traveling along (there is only one road between the two bases we’d be visiting), how sunny it would be, and who would be in which Humvee. She just had to find out where she was riding later.
Unfortunately, this interpreter, whom I consider a friend, just had to deal with it. She is not alone. Old Blue relates a story today about his own interpreters, with whom he trusts his life, being treated as common criminals when they accompanied him on an officially-sanctioned trip to Bagram. After being denied permission to eat because their IDs were not stamped right, they were then prevented from boarding the same C-130 they had arrived in, and forced to ride in a taxi, in uniform, back to Kabul.
I wish Blue’s interpreters were not the only ones to have suffered such humiliation, but it is a routine experience. Another interpreter I met, a very smart young husband and father who lives near the Pakistani border, had been trying for two years to get an interpreter visa to come to the U.S. because his family had begun receiving shabnamah, or night letters, from local militants for his work at the American base. In 2007, the team leader of the cultural advising team I was visiting super pinky swore to submit the paperwork, but never got around to it. The next team leader—both these men were Lieutenant-Colonels who walked home with medals—made the same promise, but then spent his last month stationed there in the MWR watching Minnie Driver movies. It took the third team leader, who was only filling the slot temporarily while his program brought along a replacement, to coordinate the visa papers. They are finally being processed, but the two year delay has complicated the procedure (and the State Department has, for some reason, made it more difficult for the men and women who risk themselves helping us in our wars to find refuge when they’re done).
It gets worse still. Last month, I complained about Mission Essential Personnel, the military contractor that provides interpreters for the Army. In just the bare minimal outlines of how they could run their contract effectively, they are a resounding failure, and have a knack for hiring septuagenarians for combat units while misassigning their language skills.
Now, it seems, they also screw over the interpreters who get injured on the job:
Three days later Ahmed regained consciousness, but was suffering from shrapnel wounds in his scalp and severe burns covering his right hand and leg.
A little more than three months after his accident, Ahmed was fired by his employer, Mission Essential Personnel (MEP) of Columbus, Ohio – the largest supplier of translators to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. In a statement released to this reporter, the company said that Ahmed’s “military point of contact (POC) informed MEP that Basir was frequently late and did not show up on several occasions. A few days later, Basir’s POC called MEP’s manager and told her that they were not able to use him and requested a new linguist.”
Ahmed says he missed only one day of work and arrived late twice.
Today, he lives in hiding in nearby Jalalabad for fear that his family will be targeted because he had worked with the U.S. military. The 29-year-old has no job and had to wait nine months for disability compensation to pay for medical treatment for the burns that still prevent him from lifting his hand to his mouth to feed himself.
Ahmed is one of dozens of local Afghans who have been abandoned or poorly treated by a complex web of U.S. contractors, their insurance companies, and their military counterparts despite years of service risking life and limb to help the U.S. military in the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
Indeed. That whole story is depressing, and should never be tolerated by the military’s leadership. But it is, since way too many of them consider their “terps” to be expendable assets, at least judging by how they’re treated. They’re local hangers-on, so if anything happens to them, meh, we’ll just get a new one.
As for the American interpreter being excluded from the patrol meeting? It turns out this PRT commander, an Air Force Colonel, didn’t think to bring along his own interpreter. And so, when we came to a huge traffic snarl and had to see what was going on, he was lost.
As it turned out, there was a bomb underneath a bridge, and the ANA, ANP, and NDS were all there in numbers to investigate. When we got there, an NDS agents—NDS is Afghanistan’s internal intelligence service—was taking photographs of the bridge and the bomb underneath. One of the soldiers from the PRT grabbed the NDS agent and accused him of taking pictures of the soldier and the convoy, a charge he denied. He indicated we should talk with his boss, whom our team knew well from previous meetings.
Naturally, our interpreter, who the PRT Colonel had disparaged and insulted the night before, was the only person capable of translating for the soldiers who hadn’t thought to bring their own because it was meant to be a quick routine trip.
The icing on the cake? While we spent two hours waiting for EOD to clear the explosives, the District Sub-Governor approached the Colonel and asked him if he’d like to sit down and chat about what was going on. The Colonel refused, and after another hour of sitting in the road, motionless, with machine guns trained on the stopped cars, we turned around and took a three hour detour to get back to base. Mission Unaccomplished.
The treatment of our interpreters in Afghanistan is simply unforgiveable. We could not operate without them, but they are often treated worse than second-class citizens. We owe them, and ourselves, far better.
Photo: some of the onlookers the PRT was “painting” with its machine guns, February 2009.