Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Billion Dollar Language Barrier in Afghanistan

Between accusations of US money being funneled to the Taliban, the almost comical incompetency of the Afghan military forces, and talks within Afghanistan's government to reconcile with the Taliban, it appears the United States and its allies have not been successful in quelling the violence and destroying the Taliban forces throughout Afghanistan.

What's the main reason behind this? A lack of understanding the culture (and by that, I mean language).

"They [the Taliban] know their own people -- they are culturally accurate. We know the facts but we are culturally inaccurate. The main message in the reports is that we don't fully understand our enemy and we are not clearly communicating our message to the people." 
...Military officials involved in civil affairs work highlight other issues in Afghanistan: There are not enough civilian workers to help complete promised construction projects, local governments steal project funding, there are not enough Pashtun interpreters, security concerns inhibit local workers from taking coalition jobs.

Afghanistan, whose modern borders were essentially created by a truce between the British Empire and Russia, has a large mix of languages and ethnic groups cobbled together. Below is a map compiled by the CIA during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

So having known the linguistic/ethnic breakdown of this country for over 25 years, how are we still having problems with being "culturally inaccurate"? 

Futhermore, after nine years and billions of dollars spent on military operations in Afghanistan, how many U.S Armed Services members can fluently read, speak, and write in Pashto/Pashtun? Or Dari? Or the several other languages that permeate Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the rest of the "Central Asiastan" region? 

And I don't mean Category II translators who often too old or weak to reasonably deploy with combat brigades...

U.S. troops say companies that recruit military translators are sending linguists to southern Afghanistan who are unprepared to serve in combat, even as hundreds more are needed to support the growing number of troops.
Some translators are in their 60s and 70s and in poor physical condition — and some don’t even speak the right language.
“I’ve met guys off the planes and have immediately sent them back because they weren’t in the proper physical shape,” said Gunnery Sgt. James Spangler, who is in charge of linguists at Camp Leatherneck, the largest U.S. base in Helmand province.

Here's a thought - maybe the Taliban can better understand Afghani culture because their fighters can actually speak Afghani languages.

Here's another thought - instead of shipping these translators straight to Afghanistan military bases, and then straight back to where they came from, how about shipping them to military training bases and intelligence bases to teach US soldiers the basics of these languages?

The US Army does, in fact, hire and train translators and linguists. However, it appears that we're also relying on third-party companies to under-pay local translators:

Samim, a Pashtun translator from eastern Afghanistan who previously worked for MEP, says: "God forgive them, but there are many interpreters who have been killed but [their families] haven’t been compensated. Even if they did get any compensation, they got it after long arguments." He ticks some of them off from memory: "There was Hamid who was killed in Nuristan. Emran was killed in the Devangal Valley in Kunar Province, and another in Paktia," he says. 
Samim, who asked that his full name be withheld for personal safety reasons, also says that MEP pays local translators less than their predecessor. A Titan translator who had spent two years with the company could expect 1,050 dollars a month, but MEP slashed this to 900 dollars or less. New employees who do not travel with the troops make just 650 dollars a month.

Let's do some quick math with the statistics provided by the above article:
MEP was awarded a five-year contract in September 2007 by the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) to provide 1,691 translators in Afghanistan. MEP defeated the incumbent contractor, San Diego, California- based Titan Corporation. The contract is worth up to 414 million dollars. 
If you divide a 414 million dollar contract by 1,691 Afghanistan translators, that comes out to $244,825.55 per translator. If we divide that dollar amount by the $900/month pay-rate for these translators, it comes out to us paying for 272 months, or 22.7 years worth of translating per translator. Even factoring in the larger amounts of money Mission Essential Personnel is paying for native-speaking residents in Western countries, training infrastructure, and other expenses, you have to wonder how effectively this contracted money has been spent on linguists (and why cap-off at such an arbitrary number like 1,691?).

As as this Wired article points out, MEP has received another no-bid contract for $679 million as of May 2010. 414 million + 679 million = 1,093,000,000. So in other words, 1.1 billion dollars have been awarded to a third-party company in the last three years to provide translators for Afghanistan operations, and we're still having communication problems with the population.

And that's just one contractor in Afghanistan. Almost five times that (and probably more) has been spent on Iraqi translation services.

The US Army’s Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) oversees a multi-billion contract to provide linguists services in Iraq. The contract dates back to 1999, when the INSCOM Contracting Office awarded a $4.5 billion, 5-year Worldwide Linguist Support Services (WLSS) contract to BTG, which was purchased by Titan Corp. in 2001. 

...But to be fair, if you look at an MEP job posting for a Category II Pashto Linguist, you can see some of the other hiring caveats at work that reduce the American citizen translator pool:
(a) Minimum required: 3/3 or higher in Pashto language proficiency rating. Must possess a current FINAL SECRET security clearance. Must have the ability to obtain a TOP SECRET security clearance with access to Specialized Compartmented Information (TS/SCI). The ability to read and translate handwritten material. 

(b) Desired: Extensive subject matter expertise (SME) of the content being processed, i.e. some sort of military science background, training or experience is needed to transcribe military communications. A thorough knowledge of the cultural, geopolitical, and economic issues of the source country and region involved. Technical automated information system skills, such as word processing and data entry, to be used in conjunction with written translations, as well as the ability to use advanced language software programs. 

a) Minimum required: Previous Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) experience, preferably with duty as a transcriber. An excellent command of Pashto, as well as excellent verbal and written American English language capabilities (grammar, vocabulary, idioms, spelling) because linguist work products are prepared in both languages. 

Must be: U.S. citizenship, current TS/SCI clearance or Final Secret (clearable to TS/SCI), plus a willingness to take and pass a counterintelligence (CI) polygraph.
Call me naive, but shouldn't someone this qualified and credentialed already be working in the US Armed Forces? 


In any case, now that the champion of counterinsurgency theory in Afghanistan has been placed back in charge of military operations in the region, maybe we'll see a renewed effort in the most essential part of the theory:

In counterinsurgency, the most important thing is winning over the local population. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander in charge of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, was right to warn that a “crisis of confidence among Afghans” imperils the effort to rebuild the country. For most American troops, however, the only connection they have to the locals — whether soldiers in the Afghan army or villagers they’re trying to secure — is through their interpreters.
Small Wars Journal offers some advice on how to handle your unit's assigned interpreter:

Respect them: Often interpreters are treated as tools vs. people. Summoned to meetings, disregarded after, and often treated as a necessity vs. a personality, the potential for a rift between you and your HNL’s is real. They face the same risk of death or injury as you do during missions and do so unarmed. Additionally, they, and their families are often singled out for attacks due to their cooperation with and support of ISAF and the Afghan government. Do your best to include them in unit events and treat them appropriately.

So, in other words, the backbone to our counterinsurgency plan is to tell our soldiers to treat their translators like human beings. Great.

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