Afghan translators for US military targeted

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US Cpl. Bradley Penn, 4th Marine Regiment, talks to Afghan villagers. (Image by Flickr user isafmedia (CC: by-nc-sa))

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Story by Ben Gilbert, PRI's "The World"

The U.S. surge into Afghanistan will bring 30,000 new troops to the country in the coming months. And many of those units will need Afghan translators. The new positions are providing employment to mainly Afghan men in a country plagued by war over the last nine years. But unfortunately with more interpreters working on the ground, more are being killed, with some being targeted in their homes by the Taliban. 

Dave is the nickname for a 24-year-old Afghan interpreter for the US Army in Afghanistan's dangerous south. He worries less about his own life than his 15-month-old daughter and wife who live in Kabul. 

One of his fellow interpreters was his age with a young daughter when he was killed last year by a suicide bomber. Dave says the interpreter's family only received $8,000.00 in compensation from the US military contractor who employed him. Not much for a family to live on.

"You think sometimes my kid will be same, you know? That's the most dangerous job that they're doing here," he said.

Dave didn't want his name used in this story because he accompanies the troops of Dog Company, the US Army's First Battalion, Twelfth Infantry Regiment in Kandahar Province. He's just one of the thousands of Afghan interpreters who serve as intermediaries between the military and civilians in Afghanistan. More will be needed for the surge. The swelling number of interpreters also means more will probably be killed, and not just in combat.

"It's common knowledge that any local nationals that work for ISAF could be killed by the insurgents," said Canadian Army Captain Terry Maccormac, a mentor to the Afghan Army. "Everyone knows that. That's just common knowledge."

Maccormac works closely with the Afghan interpreters at forward operating base Wilson. He says the Canadian government issued a report this winter warning that the Taliban has begun targeting Afghans working with the coalition when they're at home, away from the protection of the military.

For that reason, most Afghans working with foreign troops use westernized names for security reasons. One of them goes by the name of James. He's a 24-year-old Afghan from Kabul who works with the 112's Headquarters Company.

"Like most of the people around here, they know our face," said James. "Whenever they come to Kabul they see us. They may think that, 'oh I seen this guy. He was interpreter with the Americans. Let's go do some things against him or kill him.'"

Samim is another translator for the 112. "They think that we are like [spies]. But they don't know we just want to work," he says.

Both Samim and James say they take the risk because of high pay. They make a princely sum in Afghanistan of about $850.00 a month. Then there's the possibility that the position will pay off in a ticket to new opportunities abroad.

Another interpreter for the Headquarters Company, 22-year-old Tom, agrees. "If I do job more than two years, I can apply for going to United States. That's why I want to do it."

The US government does support a special visa program. Interpreters can apply after a year of work, but most with the 112 don't seem to understand the procedure. 

Interpreter Dave, though, says he'll soon become a more permanent member of the American family. He's applied for one of the US visas, and has a general writing a recommendation for him.  If his application goes through, Dave will receive a small stipend every month and can bring his wife and daughter to the US, and continue his education.

But for now, he can't seem to stay away from his new found profession. "I have two choice[s]: either join the United States Army, or being a civilian interpreter."

It may not be such a bad choice. Interpreters with the highest level security clearances can make six figure salaries.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."