Thursday, April 30, 2009


It'd be hard to fully comprehend what we're doing out here without appreciating our reliance on interpreters, or 'terps' as we call them, for even the most basic of communications. None of us really is able to speak either of the dominant languages in this country other than basic greetings and a few military-specific terms. Very few of my colleagues can even count to ten. Dari and Pashto are tough languages to learn, and tougher still by virtue of there being two of them, but the fact is most of us really don't put much effort into learning the languages. I'm guilty of laziness toward the languages as well, using the excuse that since I'm still learning Spanish (and probably will be the rest of my life) I don't want to use up all of my 'foreign language mental energy' on another language.

The inability to communicate makes the inadvertent casual conversation impossible unless a terp happens to be standing right there. After the obligatory greeting and handshake with a smile you're pretty well done communicating. I can communicate enough to schedule a meeting with my Afghan counterpart, but not being able to converse with him in an offhand way makes it tougher to really monitor him and lowers our productivity since I can't even conduct minor business without making a meeting of the event.

The quality of your terp can make a big difference in how well you understand each other. A terp that speaks English poorly will lead to quite a number of non sequiturs in the conversation - something like this is not uncommon:
Me: "Hey, tell that guy to come over here."
Terp: "Thank you."
Me: No, tell him to get over here."
Terp: "Yes, yes."
Me: (Slowly) "I need that man standing over there (pointing) to come to this place where I'm standing (pointing at ground) right now."
And that gets it done.

At times I have rephrased questions multiple times only to continue to receive answers that don't make sense. Sometimes you just have to let it go. Of course, then there are those terps that won't translate what I'm saying if I happen to be angry with the Afghans. I'll get angry about something only to have the terp try to smooth it over by not translating what I'm saying. I'll then complain to the terp about this and he'll come back with the response, "I can't repeat what you just told him because it will offend him." Yes, I know, but I've been doing this long enough that if I want to offend someone then I have a good reason for doing it. Even after that explanation I don't think my more harsh criticisms get through unfiltered.

Speaking of unfiltered, I played Opfor (Opposing Forces) against some Afghan commandos training with our SF forces one day a few weeks ago. Basically, we were playing paintball and I was holed up in a building with some other US personnel waiting for the Afghans commandos to come clear us out of the building. We gave them their lumps, but they did a pretty good job overall. After I was 'wounded' and then searched (a little more thoroughly than I might have liked), the SF trainer asked his soldiers what the deal was with me. The Afghans responded that he was their prisoner, which elicited the response, "Did he have a gun?"

- "yes..."
- "then why the $#*k isn't he dead!"

Now that's what I call being straightforward.
By now I've worked with probably 10 different interpreters for a decent length of time and have gotten to know some of them quite well. They had in common the fact that they were all Afghans that spoke Dari, Pashto, and English, but other than that they were very different people. One of our terps (who we dubbed "Baby Spice") looked to be know more than 15 years old. He was very happy after his first firefight, claiming that he was a man now. For all the fear and indecision he showed that first time, I have to say he adapted to things pretty well and seemed to enjoy going out on patrol, unlike some of the others who clearly dreaded any trip outside the wire.

My favorite terp by far was a guy about my age who had been a senior enlisted soldier in the Afghan National Army for some years before becoming an interpreter. I should mention that passing a short series of tests is enough to become an interpreter and the terps make about three times the wages of an Afghan soldier. The former soldier's insight into the minds of our ANA soldiers was very useful in helping us to know what we should and shouldn't let them get away with. The two of us got some good laughs after one afternoon when I asked our ANA soldiers to continue a patrol (after it had been 'interrupted' by a few machine gun bursts directed our way from across the valley) to the top of a hill and they refused saying, "The battalion does not let me do that." Ah yes, of course, the battalion does not allow you to do the mission you planned for.

In some aspects the terps are the continuity out here. I've sat and looked at my map and asked myself what it must be like in some of these places deep into valleys where we're always getting reports of large numbers Taliban. Many such places we don't go to anymore as we just can't get to them very easily, but we have terps that have been in this area of the country for years, even dating back to when the Marines were out here in 2005 and they've been all over and seen and survived a lot.

The other terps we've had have had varying degrees of proficiency with English and with combat situations - we tend to get the newer terps out here. Some will hide when things get interesting and others will stay attached to you wherever you go. Most of them are hoping to obtain US citizenship by spending some years as an interpreter with us. All in all they are a good group of young men, and with enough patience we can usually get what we want out of them.

I've attached an actual job description to give you an idea of what these guys sign up for.

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