Interpreters, Language and Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
8 years ago

For a smart analysis of what knowledge of the indigenous language can do for you in counterinsurgency, see our previous article The Enemy of My Enemy. We have long been a proponent of more and better language training for both enlisted men and officers preparing to deploy to Iraq. But we still badly need good interpreters, and yet stupid decisions will soon undermine the interpreter program in Iraq.

The U.S. military has barred Iraqi interpreters working with American troops in Baghdad from wearing ski masks to disguise themselves, prompting some to resign and others to bare their faces even though they fear it could get them killed.

Many interpreters employed by the U.S. government and Western companies do everything they can to avoid being recognized on the job because extremists have tortured and killed Iraqis accused of collaborating with the enemy.

“The terps are the No. 1 wanted here,” said A.J., a 36-year-old military interpreter, using the shorthand for his profession. “More than the Americans. More than anyone.”

The interpreters have come to symbolize the bravery of Iraqis who have aided the American project in Iraq. About 300 U.S. military interpreters have been killed since 2003, according to Kirk Johnson, a former official in Iraq with the U.S. Agency for International Development who has fought to make it easier for interpreters and other Iraqis to come to the U.S.

U.S. military officials said they began to enforce the mask ban in September because security in Baghdad has improved dramatically.

“We are a professional Army, and professional units don’t conceal their identity by wearing masks,” Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a U.S. military spokesman.

Some U.S. soldiers said enforcing the policy makes them feel terrible.

“It’s a life-and-death issue for them,” said Staff Sgt. Jeremy Ziegler, who works in Dora, a district in southern Baghdad.

“We can’t work for the U.S. Army if we don’t wear a mask,” said Maximus, 28, who has worked as an interpreter for the military on and off since 2003. “If they recognize our face, they’re going to kill our families.”

“Maximus” is not exaggerating. Consider the 2007 example of an interpreter for the British Army in Basra.

A man said to have been an interpreter for the British Army in Basra has been killed by militia gunmen on the very day that his wife learnt she was pregnant with their first child.

Nine or ten masked men went to the home of Moayed Ahmed Khalaf in the al-Hayaniah district of Basra and beat him in front of his wife and mother, four sources told The Times. They then dragged him away, telling the frantic women that they would bring him back shortly. Khalaf’s body was found on Al Qa’ed Street later that night. He had been shot multiple times, according to Colonel Ali Manshed, commander of the Shatt-al-Arab police station.

A cousin, a close friend and two other interpreters all told The Times that Khalaf, 31, had worked for the British at their Basra airport base. Colonel Manshed said that everyone questioned by the police had said Khalaf was an interpreter, adding: “He was a good man, everyone liked him and there was no other reason to kill him.”

The best way to use the desire to have interpreters who don’t hide their identity is to use masks as metrics as was done in Fallujah in 2007. The more interpreters feel the need to wear masks, the more work needs to be done in order to ensure security. The less interpreters wear masks, the greater indication that is of success. In Fallujah it was the Iraqi Police who wore masks – in this case, it’s the interpreters.

But this brings up another point. None of them (IP or interpreters) are uniformed U.S. Army or Marines. Said Lt. Col. Stover, “We are a professional Army, and professional units don’t conceal their identity by wearing masks.” Odd statement, this. The Army and Marines don’t conceal their identity, so what is Col. Stover talking about? Again, the IP and interpreters aren’t our Army. Why wouldn’t we understand and be sensitive to cultural and local issues such as the need for security and protection of identity? At some point this becomes more than just stupid. It’s immoral to force interpreters to risk their family’s safety unnecessarily.

Also, Lt. Col. Stover isn’t quite right concerning the notion of U.S. forces not concealing their identity. It is customary and routine for Special Operations Forces not only to wear garb that conceals their identity, but also to issue pro forma declarations about everything related to their operations being OPSEC (Operational Security). This is certainly an overreaction, but true nonetheless. We are affording our own forces protections that we won’t allow our contracted interpreters.


You are currently reading "Interpreters, Language and Counterinsurgency", entry #1559 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Counterinsurgency,Iraq,Language Interpreters and was published November 18th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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