Archive for the 'Language Interpreters' Category



Language in Statecraft

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 6 months ago

Companion Category: Language in Counterinsurgency

From USA Today concerning language and the State Department:

Complicating the Obama administration’s plan to ramp up civilian aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan, the State Department employs just 18 foreign service officers who can speak the language of the region where the Taliban insurgency rages, according to records and interviews.

Two of them work in Afghanistan, both in the capital, Kabul, according to the State Department’s Bureau of Human Resources. Five are in Peshawar, Pakistan.

“It’s a grim illustration of two problems,” said Ronald Neumann, a veteran diplomat who was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. “First, there is no money, and second, there are no people.”

The Pashto language is the main tongue of the mountainous Pashtun region that straddles the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda recruit and operate. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is among the estimated 35 million Pashtuns in both countries.

The State Department has long failed to meet its language needs. In 2006, the Government Accountability Office found that nearly 30% of State Department employees based overseas in “language-designated positions” could not speak and write the local language well enough to meet basic requirements.

The language deficit is one reason the United States has turned to contractors to deliver foreign aid, a practice that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says she wants to curb. Clinton is asking for billions in the coming budget to hire 1,226 additional diplomats, but it will take time to train them.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. military and the State Department boosted their training in Afghan languages, but the military commands vastly more resources. Seven years into the Afghanistan war, the Defense Department says it has trained 200 people in Pashto and 300 in Dari, the primary language of the non-Pashtun areas of Afghanistan.

The California-based Defense Language Institute has given 10,000 people some basic exposure to Pashto through mobile training units, spokesman Brian Lamar said. The Defense Department gave a half-million-dollar grant to Indiana University to train ROTC candidates in Pashto.

The State Department’s efforts have been more modest. In addition to the 18 foreign service officers who are proficient in Pashto, 82 speak Dari, State’s Bureau of Human Resources said in an e-mail. It said 20 Dari speakers are in Afghanistan.

Those figures will improve, said Ruth Whiteside, who directs State’s Foreign Service Institute, which is training 13 diplomats in Pashto and 37 in Dari. A larger 2010 budget will expand those numbers, she said.

Rather than reflexively blame the situation on the lack of money, let’s frame the problem somewhat differently.  The Department of Defense knew that the exposure to and need for knowledge in the indigenous languages would be significant in counterinsurgency, so directed the funds and energy towards that end.  The State Department is filled with “lifers,” many of them, who want to conduct international relations while sitting in Washington.

North Korea has not been prevented from achieving nuclear status by State Department labors, and neither has Iran been persuaded to relinquish its pursuit of its own nuclear weapon.  Syria was never forced to stop assisting the influx of foreign fighters into Iraq, and Hamas still controls Gaza.

There should be mandatory language training at least one day per week at State (whether by tape or trainer).  After all.  What else do they have to do?  Then after the languages are mastered, there ought to be mandatory field rotations for all State employees (that is, deployments).  After all, what else do they have to do?

Interpreters, Language and Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
6 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.


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