The Dreadful Treatment of Military Interpreters

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by Joshua Foust on 8/16/2009 · 15 comments

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.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on Registan.net.

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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{ 15 comments }

Old Blue August 16, 2009 at 1:46 pm

Great post, Josh. Interpreters are patriots, no less than the soldiers of the ANA or ANP. They do lay their lives on the line. While MEP may cause a number of snarls (and they do,) I am finding that there are a number of things that conscientious units can do to ensure that their terps are treated normally wherever they take them.

If you are or are going to be in a position to have a terp, please read the following:

The first thing is to treat terps as members of the team. While US citizen interpreters are uncommon, a Secret clearance is a Secret clearance. Most terps don’t have one, but then most Specialists don’t either. Use the appropriate level of OPSEC for a team member. Treating a terp as a valued team member also means not allowing anyone else to give them shit. Always stand up for your team members.

Secondly, get the real skinny on what it takes to get an unescorted ID and/or meal, flight and other mission-essential “privileges.” Take the steps, do the paperwork, and vouch like you mean it. Don’t take an easy no when a hard yes is a couple of more pushes away. Make sure that you don’t get blown off by a contractor looking for the easy way out.

Thirdly, don’t take your terp for granted. I’ve had my life saved by an interpreter. Take the time to get to know them, know about their family, and make sure that they get regular time off to go and visit. If your terp has less than three years of service, they may need to be escorted. Escort them wherever they need to go. Take them along and take them wherever you need to go. 99 out 100 former ETT’s or PMT’s will speak in glowing terms of their terps. Yours was probably theirs at one point. Have some respect. Your terp probably has more combat experience than you will ever have.

None of this means that MEP and the other entities don’t need to tighten their ships. The current quota for terp visas is woefully small as well. Some definite changes are needed to recognize these quiet heroes of Afghanistan.

Jack August 16, 2009 at 1:57 pm

There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding in your post. I was in the Army, used interpreters, and am going back for a second tour. Mission Essential Personnel, in my opinion, are actually one of the few companies doing it right. I think the most important thing to consider is that the company doesn’t assign translators, the military does. They just facilitate their movement and then have administrative, not operational control. It’s a big point that deserves consideration. I think I was told there is a new program that MEP created itself to help the military better assign interpreters. I am not sure if that is up and running yet but I hope so when I return.

Michael August 16, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Great post Josh… unfortunately a lack of regard for languages is unfortunately much too widespread!

Mickey Brown Face August 17, 2009 at 12:40 am

Ah, this is very sad to read. This is unfortunate cruel treatment handed out to those who are assets to our mission in Afghanistan.

If the PRT colonel viewed the female Afghan American interpreter as a terrorist (real or potential), then how does he view the local Afghans (the regular guys from Khost or Logar or whever who aren’t paid contractors)? He seems like a person who’s totally incompatible for a PRT, if you ask me.

BruceR August 17, 2009 at 8:22 am

Yeah, your story just seems bafflingly stupid to me. The only question like that that ever came up with us as far as access was, “do they have a level 2 security clearance?” (Which in practice meant they were Afghan-Canadian, as opposed to Afghan local national.) Afghan-Canadians got the run of the place, and locals who went home at night still had to be watched, if still given the benefit of the doubt. There were never enough Afg-Cdns for the work, of course. The misbehaviour you report WRT the NDS guy taking photos is also bizarre to me: not the AFG I worked in.

Companies like MEP and IMS that handle local national terps walk a fine line sometimes: I can’t see I agreed with all their actions WRT their employees, but I understood the reasoning. And there have to be at least some controls on “terp visas” and things like lateness, obviously. There is never an excuse, however, for mistreatment of employees injured or killed in the line of duty, by the company or by the military that hired them: I’m glad to say I never saw any of that on my tour.

Old Blue’s recommendations are good ones. I would add “find ways to practice with terps using simple, clear language during your pre-dep.” Counter-intuitively, I found French-Canadians are often better than English-Canadians with terps, because their second-language English is often less idiomatic and spoken more slowly, allowing for more accurate translation. (Plus they tend to talk with their hands more, but that’s more an uptight Anglo thing.)

Joshua Foust August 17, 2009 at 9:01 am

Jack, I’d appreciate hearing what “doing it right” means. The MEP employees I knew — not just interpreters, but their admin staff as well — were all deeply frustrated with everything save the pay.

BruceR, bafflingly stupid in what way? This incident was one of many that have flipped me from being optimistic about the war to deeply pessimistic. We even officially filed the incident, but nothing ever came of it (as one would expect). The PRT colonel was USAF, and those have been so much more trouble than they could ever be worth—most are former pilots, with no command experience save rank and certainly no relevant cultural training.

The whole point of relaying this story is that there are basic, fundamental problems in how we treat our interpreters.

Christian August 17, 2009 at 9:42 am

“BruceR, bafflingly stupid in what way?”

I think that is directed at the military and the contractors, not your analysis.

David M August 17, 2009 at 10:03 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 08/17/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

BruceR August 17, 2009 at 12:04 pm

I don’t know, I guess I’ve always been lucky with my Cols. I can’t think of one who have been so stupid as to deny a fellow citizen about to depart on a convoy access to convoy orders. It’s very aberrant behaviour for the setting. You may have found the World’s Worst Senior Officer there. Your door prize will be in the mail.

Toryalay Shirzay August 17, 2009 at 12:38 pm

Let’s remember that the US military is the vanguard of freedom the world over and their current mission is to win the war on islamic fascism.In bringing to light all their actions,the writers of this blog,contribute to sharpening the performance of the military in this must win war.If the mistakes of the military are not brought to light,then the military loses effectiveness and you and I know we cannot afford any of this.Thus ,not withstanding any mistakes and foul attitudes and with the full intention of putting into practice all the lessons learned thereby,onward with the struggle against islamic fascism and the enemies of freedom.

Nurist August 17, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Actually it is right . some offecers don’t treat the interpreters well.
Infect they do a lot for the US Army. Specially MEP they are just looking to there money , how can they make business out f the interepreters.. They don’t care about there them at all.

MA August 17, 2009 at 5:01 pm

Thanks. This post provides greater clarity about several of the comments made on Abu M.

Consistently, your blog serves as a source of information that expands understanding of our efforts in Afghanistan.

I read a lot of different blogs, somewhat haphazardly. The various perspectives often leaves somewhat obscure the import of the information provided but that does not lessen their value.

Njarl August 18, 2009 at 6:34 am

To take this thread in a slightly different direction, I simply cannot understand why PRTs have Navy and Air Force commanders – it seems to be a textbook example of ‘jointness’ over effectiveness. I’m glad McChrystal seems to be against this:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/10/AR2009071002975.html

“McChrystal, who has spent most of his career in special operations units, is backing a proposal by Adm. Eric T. Olson, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, to replace the current Navy and Air Force commanders of at least half of the 12 U.S. provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan with Special Operations officers who served previous tours in Afghanistan and have training in at least one of its two languages, Dari and Pashto.

Olson and McChrystal believe that the Navy and Air Force officers, who typically have backgrounds as pilots, navigators or ship commanders, lack the necessary experience. “We want to have the smartest and most culturally aware officers in charge of the reconstruction teams,” said the senior military official in Kabul. ”

Having said that, I’d prefer to see civil affairs officers in command rather than SF….although perhaps the Green Berets see this as a way to get back to their old FID mission, and away from the door-kicking.

Spanish Interpreter August 20, 2009 at 9:59 am

Unbelievable that interpreters working for US have to be treated so badly.

tictoc August 20, 2009 at 2:05 pm

The push to outsource practically everything in the military was justified by the argument that private contractors could do it better and cheaper. The reality, though, seems far different. Equally bad, if not worse results, and at a far inflated cost. Has the supply of interpreters improved since 2004? Well, Mission Essential Personnel’s revenues have grown a whopping 2,537.9% during that time.
http://www.inc.com/inc5000/2009/company-profile.html?id=200900520

This just stinks of corruption.

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