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10 years in Afghanistan: A translator's delicate role

By Matt Ford, Associated Press

As the U.S. military prepares for its scheduled withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, the mission ahead appears to be a daunting one: training and working in partnership with the Afghan National Army and the Afghan police, working to gain the trust of the local people and encouraging participation in local governance.

For all those objectives, the most difficult barrier is language.  Afghans speak mostly Dari or Pashtu, and the average soldier does not.

Matt Ford / AP

Staff Sgt. Joshua White, center, Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell, left, and Brigade Sgt. Maj. Mike Boom, right, observe a joint patrol of U.S. Army and Afghan National Army soldiers and Afghan police in Paktika province, Afghanistan, on Monday, Oct. 3.

To communicate, they rely entirely on interpreters. Most of them are Afghans who studied English in school. They live, eat and sleep on the base with the soldiers who refer to them as "terps" and sometimes suspect them of double-dealing with the enemy. All a part of the modern war.

But out on patrol, the platoon leader has to be able to trust that his words are being accurately conveyed.  A slight variation could be the difference between an expression of empathy and a promise that can't be kept. 

Red Platoon leader U.S. Army 1st Lt. Christian Gehrels, of the 172nd infantry brigade at Forward Operating Base Tillman in Eastern Afghanistan, and his interpreter, who goes by the name T, are inseparable while on patrol. They walk side-by-side, T wearing a small flak jacket with multiple walkie-talkies — one for the police and one for the Army.  Gehrels gives his instructions to T who then relays the orders to the Afghans.

Matt Ford / AP

U.S. Army 1st Lt. Christian Gehrels, center, and his interpreter talk with local Afghans in eastern Paktika province on Monday, Oct. 3. U.S. Army and Afghan National Army soldiers are trying to convince local elders to attend a weekly shura council at their base.

Gehrels is 25 years old.  T is either 19 or 20, he doesn't know exactly.  Together, they are directing operations with men twice their age and discussing local issues with Afghan elders far older than that.

When they meet with Afghans living in small villages near the local base they act more like diplomats than soldiers. They listen to grievances,  hand out warm clothes for the upcoming winter and ask people to come to the base to discuss local issues.  Few have ever shown up.

T and most of the other interpreters at FOB Tillman worry about possible retribution from the Taliban once the NATO forces leave.  Many hope to leave Afghanistan when the Americans do.  T has considered this option, but hopes that the Afghan National Army and Afghan police will be able to provide security, and he can safely go to college and maybe someday teach English to other Afghans.

Matt Ford / AP

Capt. Wahidullah, head of the Afghan National Army at Forward Operating Base Tillman in eastern Paktika province, talks with local children after giving them warm clothes for the winter on Monday, Oct.3.

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