FORWARD OPERATING BASE WILSON, Afghanistan — Hamayon, a 24-year-old Afghan interpreter for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan’s dangerous south, worries less about his own life than his 15-month-old daughter and wife in Kabul. One of his fellow interpreters was about his age, with a young daughter, when he was killed last year by a suicide bomber. Hamayon says the interpreter’s family only received $8,000 in compensation from the U.S. military contractor who employed him — not much for a family to live on.
“I think sometimes my kid will be in the same situation,” he said. “It’s the most dangerous job we’re doing here. But we still do it.”
Hamayon makes about $850 a month accompanying the troops of “Dog” Company of the U.S. Army’s 1st battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment in Afghanistan’s volatile Kandahar Province. His language skills include English, Dari and Pashtu, making him a valuable asset for the military, and for his large family, who value the income.
Hamayon is just one of thousands of Afghan interpreters hired by the U.S.-led coalition of 43 countries, called the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, to serve as an intermediary between the U.S. military and civilians in Afghanistan. Thousands more are being hired to translate for the 30,000-strong “surge” of U.S. troops streaming into the country. The new positions are providing employment to young Afghan men in a country plagued by war for the last nine years and hopes for an immigration visa to the U.S. or another of the NATO countries.
The swelling number of interpreters also means more are being killed, and not just in combat. Increasingly, the Taliban and other insurgents are targeting interpreters when they’re at home, away from the protection of the military.
“There’s been a gradual rise of local nationals who work for ISAF who have been murdered,” said Canadian Army Capt. Terry Maccormac, who, as a mentor to the Afghan army, works closely with Afghan interpreters and the 1-12 on Forward Operating Base Wilson.
An Afghan interpreter working for Canadian military mentor teams in Kandahar was murdered by the Taliban in January, according to Canwest news service. He was the first known interpreter working with Canadian forces to be killed by the Taliban, although other translators have died in roadside bomb attacks. Maccormac said the Canadian government issued a classified report this winter warning that the Taliban has begun targeting Afghans working with ISAF.
“It’s common knowledge that any of the local nationals who work for ISAF could be killed,” he said. “And these guys [interpreters] all know it as well, and that’s why their names are kept very secure.”
Most Afghans use westernized names for security reasons. Like many interpreters working for ISAF in Afghanistan’s south, Tom and James are employed by a U.S. company called Mission Essential Personnel, and are from Kabul. Still, they didn’t want their real names used in this story.
“Most of the people around here, they know our face,” said James, 24. “Whenever they come to Kabul, they see us, they say ‘oh, I’ve seen this guy, he was a interpreter with the Americans. Let’s go do some things against him.'”
“They will kill us, they will execute us, because they don’t like the Afghan people like us to work with the Americans,” said a 1-12 Bravo Company interpreter named Samim, about the Taliban. “They think we are like spies. But we are just working to support our families.”
Nearly all of the interpreters say they take the risk because of the pay and possibility that the position will pay off in a ticket to new opportunities abroad.
“If I do this job more than two years I can apply for entry to the United States, that’s why I want to do it,” said “Tom,” a 22-year-old interpreter for the 1-12’s Headquarters Company. “My own destination is the United States to get higher education.”
“I don’t want to do this forever,” he continued. “If we are going to support the Americans, the Americans should support us too.”
The U.S. government does support a special visa program for 5,000 military interpreters from either Afghanistan or Iraq to immigrate to the U.S. every year. Interpreters can apply after a year of work, but most interpreters with the 1-12 don’t seem to understand the procedure.
They seem especially confused about how long they need to work with U.S. forces. The U.S. law states interpreters only have to work for a year with the U.S. military, and need a recommendation from an American general or diplomat.
Canada has a similar program for Afghan interpreters who work with Canadian government and military in Afghanistan.
Some interpreters experience cultural insensitivity on the U.S. bases, mainly from young GI’s who haven’t had contact with other cultures or religions before. Although the Afghan translators ride on the same patrols, eat the same food and live on the same bases as their American units, they are banned from using most of the American soldiers’ portable toilets, and have separate showers.
“NO TERPS,” short for “interpreter,” is crudely scrawled on the front of many toilets and some showers at FOB Wilson, in a style more reminiscent of the Jim Crow South than an American military base that serves an operation called Enduring Freedom in the interpreter’s country. The signs only apply to “local nationals,” not to the U.S. citizen, Afghan-American interpreters, who have security clearances and are paid high salaries to work in a country they left long ago.
Nor do the Afghan-American interpreters have to settle for being called “Terp” by some U.S. troops, a term sometimes used derogatorily, or lazily, in place of the local national Afghan interpreter’s given or adopted name.
“I especially don’t like to be called ‘Terp,'” said James. “I like them to call me ‘Interpreter.’ It’s a little more polite. And my name, because we have a name patch here on our uniforms.”
James says that when soldiers do call him a “Terp,” he doesn’t raise any objections. He pauses. “I don’t want to cause any problems,” he said.
The second-class treatment appears to have led to violence on at least one occasion. On Jan. 29, an Afghan interpreter on a U.S. base in Wardak Province shot and killed two American soldiers. NATO and Afghan officials said the interpreter wasn’t an insurgent, rather he was angry about his pay and treatment at the facility, according to Reuters news agency.
Despite the insensitivities, most interpreters say they enjoy working with the Americans. They love the camaraderie, share a hate for the Taliban and optimistically look forward to traveling to the U.S.
“The Americans are doing good,” said Hamayon. “They treat us like members of their family.”
Hamayon hopes to soon make himself a more permanent member of the American family. He’s well on his way to becoming one of the 5,000 interpreters selected for immigration every year. An American general has written a recommendation, and he already spent time studying at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., on a scholarship last year.
If he gets the visa, Hamayon would receive a small stipend every month, and could bring his wife and daughter to the U.S. and continue his professional education. He graduated from his Kabul university at the top of his class for pharmacy studies. But he can’t seem to stay away from his newfound profession.
“I’m either going to join the army or go work as an interpreter in the U.S.,” he said.
Interpreters with the highest level security clearances can make six-figure salaries.