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Afghanistan war: What happens when a war interpreter doesn't know the language

US troops rely on local Afghan interpreters in the mission to win hearts and minds in the Afghanistan war. But many learn crucial languages on the job, resulting in deadly mishaps.

By Staff writer / September 9, 2010

US soldiers of Bravo Company 2/508th PIR, 4th BTC, 82 Airborne (Air Assault) (L) and Afghan translators fly a kite at a base in Kandahar province's Kukaran on August 5.

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Kabul, Afghanistan

American soldiers in Afghanistan are relying on civilian interpreters who, in some cases, do not know the languages they are hired to speak, resulting in dangerous military mistakes.

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A former screener of translators alleges in a lawsuit that his former employer overlooked cheating on language proficiency exams, according to an ABC News report. The whistleblower, Paul Funk, tells ABC that 28 percent of the interpreters hired by the firm between November 2007 and June 2008 failed the US government’s language requirements. The company denies the charges and is fighting the lawsuit in court.

The interpreters in question appear to be those hired from the US and sent to Afghanistan, mostly of Afghan ancestry. But American troops also rely heavily on local Afghan interpreters who are supplied by various US contractors.

Monitor interviews with more than half a dozen former Afghan interpreters reveal that many learn crucial languages “on the job,” occasionally resulting in deadly mishaps and misunderstandings in the mission to win hearts and minds.

“All the interpreters, when they first start, hide,” says one former interpreter called Tahir. It took him five or six months, he said, to understand English well enough to translate. In the meantime, he would retreat to the toilets whenever he thought he would be chosen to go on a mission. “Our friends would cover.”

All the interpreters – or "terps," as they're referred to here – refused to be fully named, explaining that they could be killed if other Afghans learned they had worked for the US military.

Dangerous mishaps

Yousuf admits that when he was working with international forces in 2004, he did not know the Pastho language well. Pashto is widely spoken in the Taliban regions of rural southern and eastern Afghanistan, while Dari is spoken in Kabul, where Yousuf and many other Afghan terps are hired.

On the job in Paktia Province, he mostly needed to speak Pashto, particularly with the Afghan National Army (ANA) men there.

At one point, his unit of international forces (ISAF) was on one side of a hill and the ANA were on the other. The ANA radioed Yousuf to tell ISAF to launch flares over the left side of the village so they could see what was going on.

“Suddenly I couldn’t hear this National Army guy – it was a little noisy with the sound of gunfire. I hear: ‘You can fire on the left side of the village.’ ”

The ISAF troops fired on the village, named Said Karam, until the ANA called back in distress. The next morning, hundreds of cows and sheep lay dead – but no people, as it was an area set aside for grazing. ISAF paid the villagers for their losses.

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