March 31, 2008

Educating Interpreters

In war among the people, the ability to communicate is perhaps the most important skill. Yet the US military remains woefully unable to speak the languages of the areas in which it fights. Even our doctrine, while recognizing the importance of language, cops out by saying learn as much of the language as possible rather than "learn the language."

The result of our need to operate in human terrain and our inability to our articulate ourselves in the languages of Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines, and elsewhere is a reliance on interpreters. In the course of my deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, I have worked with several dozen interpreters. Individual motivations of these men (and, while I have known a few women interpreters, I have only ever had men in my employ) vary from patriotism to party, from the greater good to greed, to some combination of all of the above. I have had an interpreter who turned out to be a spy. Another told me and my fellows that he would most certainly give us notice before he took up arms against us (he was a self-admitted Shiite militiaman)--we were grateful for his candor, I guess.

Most, on the other hand have been reliable, patriotic, and many I call friend and brother. I have had to entrust my mission and even my life to my interpreters at times and am today still none the worse for wear. Some of them cannot say the same. My brothers-friends-interpreters have had their homes bombed and their families kidnapped for working with me.

George Packer and others have occasionally brought to light how poorly we have treated these men for their sacrifice. Last week, the Miami Herald ran an Op-Ed on another interpreter who we have treated poorly. I have myself been astonished at how poorly some American units have taken care of their interpreters--even on little things like leave and pay.

In one particularly galling instance, one of my interpreters paid a massive ransom to have a family member released, and my command sat idly by and did nothing, even when the attackers presented us with a number of opportunities to exploit their tactical errors in the kidnapping. The interpreter went into massive debt and also had to displace his entire family to a secret location. My team could offer only solace.

I spent a great deal of time helping some of my interpreters apply for US visas this past year. Of course the 500 special status visas we offered are weak antiseptic for a festering moral wound. Yet I am torn.

Many of these men, particularly the Afghan interpreters who were less sectarian than their Iraqi brethren, are among the brightest beacons of a better future for their country. They have developed into highly trained communicators and demonstrated mastery of several languages. Many have demonstrated great courage (one of my interpreters survived more than 10 IED attacks in the five years he worked for Coalition Forces, including one attack in which he was the sole survivor in the vehicle). And they have in many cases demonstrated true patriotism and an inspired nationalism. Can we really afford to allow these countries to hemorrhage such men and women of capability and hope?

In 2009, our special interpreter visa program will once again only allow 50 interpreters to apply for visas. Instead of re-instating a green card program, even if the modest attempt made us feel good about the unacceptable way in which we have treated these heroes, I suggest that we institute an intensive scholarship and training program for these men. The aim of such a program should be to build state capacity by training these men as engineers, bureaucrats, senior managers, businessmen, economists, medical doctors, nurses, veterinarians, and other professional disciplines. Efforts would be made to gather these men and women once a year in Washington or elsewhere to learn about the workings of government and to develop a cohesive network of US-educated professionals. Scholarships could range from two-year vocational training to full-fledged doctoral programs.

Such a program would reward the patriotism and sacrifice of these fine men and women. It would have the added benefit of building leadership that understands and bears some affection to the USA. At the same time it would provide long term hope of capitalizing on interpreters' abilities by ensuring they have a stake in building their states, not just leaving them.