Friday, November 14, 2008

An Answer To An Open Question

This from Peter Marton at [My] State Failure Blog:

Alex Strick van Linschoten reports of witness accounts of an apparently reckless case of bombing that killed people at a wedding party in Kandahar province. Regarding the concerns about civilian casualties caused by the inevitably awkward use of air power in Afghanistan, the incident is telling as any other similar incident of this kind is from the past. I'd note here something else, that shouldn't be overlooked, either - quote from Alex coming up:
"Rahmatullah, another man present in Wech Baghtu (the village that was bombed), claimed that the translators had robbed them after tying them up. "They took 200 Afghani [about $4] and my mobile phone and all the papers from my pockets," he said."
This is important for the attention of soldiers operating on patrols in Afghanistan. Are you making sure this kind of thing doesn't happen? Are you sure the Afghans at your side, taking indirect and direct fire in engagements together with you, bearing pain together with you, are necessarily "good guys" overall? ~ Peter Marton, [My] State Failure Blog

Just to set the stage, the larger article is about another supposed wedding bombing by ISAF. How many weddings is that this year? It’s been a minimum of three claimed bombed weddings this year. It seems like if you have an airstrike in Afghanistan, someone will claim that you bombed a wedding. Pictures of hospitalized victims add to credibility, but they could also have been civilians nearby when insurgents drew fire in their direction, as they often do.

I don’t know. I wasn’t there. This post isn’t about the aerial suppression of nuptial celebrations in Afghanistan. It’s about my experience with Afghan soldiers and interpreters. I’m not contending with Mr. Marton; not in the least. He raised an interesting issue and actually asked for some thoughts on it.

* Of course the ANA should not at all be judged based on single incidents, I'm not trying to create an overall bad image of them. Based on what I know, while ANA soldiers may commit bad things just like anyone else, they are doing quite well considering the pay, the training and the equipment they get (which is still better than that what the police gets). Also, based on sources I had access to, American soldiers and other soldiers who have been to combat with ANA units, tend to appreciate them more than others. But I still have heard complaints from trainers and soldiers and the like from some sources. Anyway, now that brought this subject up, I wonder what you people think of the relationship between Afghan and foreign soldiers, and how it varies from place to place or depending on other factors. Let me know. ~ Peter Marton, [My] State Failure Blog

Okay, Peter; I’m letting you know.

First, there is something that I want to correct in the story I linked to. The ANA and the ANP are paid exactly the same (much to the consternation of the ANA.) ANP pay reform is one of the things that happened while I was in country. It was accompanied by rank reform, as the ANP had been very top-heavy rank-wise. The same thing had been done to the ANA previously. Some of the officers were retired, some were re-frocked at lower (more appropriate) officer ranks, and some were recommended for positions as NCO’s (the ANP were just as clueless as to what to do with an NCO Corps as the ANA were initially. They probably still are.)

Interpreters do not work for the ANA. Actually, they are civilian contractors provided by a single company who has won a contract to provide interpreters that the Army and Marine mentors use. There are good terps, there are very good terps, and there are marginal terps, who usually don’t last very long. Most terps who have more than six months of experience are either good or very good.

Some are exquisite.

Sam the Combat Terp was exquisite. His English was good, but there were other terps whose English was more precise. It wasn’t just his language skills that made him exquisite. Sam is a patriot. Many of them are. I can’t imagine Sam stealing. I just can’t. Sam hated corruption. He hated hashish and tarak. He loathed lazy soldiers and especially lazy officers. Sam would chew more Afghan ass than a dozen Americans ever could. I believe that Sam saved my life.

Many of us have had varying experience with terps. O had one down in the southern part of the Tagab Valley during Operation Nauroz Jhala that we had borrowed from our good friends at TF Gladius. Zamid was a tall, slender, soft-spoken and deferential young man from Gladius’ interpreter pool. He had never seen combat before. In Zamid’s first contact with the enemy, as O was shouting directions to his ANP charges he suddenly realized that his directions were not being echoed in Dari or Pashto. He shouted for Zamid and looked around for him.

Zamid was doing his gangly best to shelter under a rock in a roadside ditch. "Get up, Zamid! You've got to tell them what I'm saying!" O shouted.

"Noooo, sir, they are shooting at me!" wailed Zamid.

O unceremoniously snatched him up by the collar and marionette-walked the taller Zamid with him, hollering to him that he would relay his instructions to the ANP and he would be going wherever O went. O and his terp-marionette got the ANP sorted out and the ANP fire drove off the ambushers.

O had a very serious chat with Zamid indeed. O came to view young Zamid with a certain amount of paternal affection by the end of the operation, but there were times that he promised Zamid that he would kill him before the Taliban could if he didn’t get up and do his job.

Sam, on the other hand, is the epitome of a fighting terp. Soft-spoken and deferential with Americans, he is ferocious with Afghans when he needs to be. Sam’s father, a Major in the ANA, was downrange a lot. Sam is the eldest son. Terps get death threats sometimes, and Sam and his family got their share. He moved his entire family twice while I was there, on his days off.
Sam carried his pride and joy, a Russian AK-47 (an honest-to-God AK-47, not an AKM) date-stamped 1951, that we had borrowed from another element. Sam knew how to use it, and how not to use it. He was the image of an Afghan Clint Eastwood with his AK.

Sometimes you can say a lot and your terp will say one sentence to your Afghan counterpart. That is very likely your own fault, as you have tried to forcibly insert ten pounds of manure into a five pound bag. I could tell an Afghan officer that he needed to straighten something up and Sam would just lay into him. Sam knew the procedures well enough that he would often correct a soldier before I could get my mouth open.

I’ll never forget the second day of the operation, when Sam called out a question in Pashto to two local men who simply ignored him. Sam hopped with both feet from the elevated dike-wall we were walking on… directly onto the largest hashish plant next to the wall. It was at least a seven foot plant, with a stem base as big as your wrist. The smell of mating skunks filled the air as Sam tore into the trunk with a large knife.

That got their attention. When they moaned about their hashish, Sam told them, “You shouldn’t be growing that. It’s illegal; you know that. I didn’t notice it was there until you wouldn’t answer me. Then I saw it and I have to destroy it because it’s not legal to have this.” Point taken, Sam.

Sam wasn’t just my terp; he was the team terp, but he was my terp for Operation Nauroz Jhala, when each of us had a small team of Americans, an 80-100 ANP “company,” and one up-armor apiece. I felt so lucky to have had him. While O was perfecting his puppetry skills with Zamid, my terp was the least of my worries.

Then there was a glitch. After about three weeks Sam asked to go to a family member’s wedding. One of his buddies, Harif, also from the terp pool, volunteered to stand in for him. I was concerned that he wouldn’t be good. He was so quiet.

Harif, SGT Surferdude and I wound up seven miles from the nearest Americans (all five of them) with 40 ANP in the middle of the night up a valley that no Americans had been up before. Harif was a relatively unknown quantity at that point. I was to find out that he is an amazing young man; bright, energetic, patriotic. He was scared to death, he told me later, but he went. That guy is a terp.

Sam had been in over 50 ambushes before we got him. Several months after Operation Nauroz Jhala he was on another combat operation when someone hopped in the humvee in a panic and took off after being spooked by a spent bullet, leaving Sam outside the vehicle. There are still copies floating around of the audio which was recorded on the flight recorder of an Apache that was in support that day. Recovered from the Gunmetal archives was this gem:

"(Censored)6, this is (censored)22, be advised that your terp is on your trunk, over."

The humvee ground to a halt and there was Sam in the swirling dust, an antenna in each hand, perched with his feet on the spare, thoroughly disgusted. Most men would have killed someone. Sam, on the other hand, didn't like to talk about it.

That guy is a terp.

Men like Sam and Harif are the very hope of Afghanistan. If you go over to Bouhammer, you will find a story of how one of his terps was killed in action this year. Read that story and see if you don’t hear the same admiration in his post.

I could write a book about the terps. They are patriots, and each has a vision of what Afghanistan can be. It’s not the same as my vision, because it is an Afghan vision, seen through Afghan eyes. Their vision is much more realistic than mine, I’m sure. I can’t even imagine any of our terps shaking anyone down. Nor can I imagine any of our officers or NCO’s abiding with that.

On the other hand, there are the IO campaigns.

So now terps are targets of IO? Not just now; it's not like it just happened out of nowhere. Terps are and have been a huge thorn in the side of the anti-government forces in Afghanistan all along. Our interpreters were threatened via text messages on their phones. Their families were threatened. They often wore shemaghs over their faces in certain areas to prevent being identified. They live dangerous lives simply due to their work. Sam was specifically targeted by the anti-government forces in our area and in Kabul. We had to put controls on his movement after a while, not letting him travel alone.

So Rahmatullah says that the terp took his stuff while he was tied up by the Americans. Well, we never tied anyone up. Handcuffed once or twice, but never tied up. I even had to work to get on the ANP to handcuff the guy who had an anti-tank mine and a bunch of RPG warheads buried feet from his house. I had to explain to them (through Sam) that this grinning fool wanted to kill them with that mine. I'm not sure that they really grasped that until about three weeks later when four of them were killed in that same sub-valley, the Afghania Valley, in an IED attack. I think that they got it after that. No, we never tied anyone up. I never heard of anyone being tied up, either. Our terps never searched anyone, either. Not once.

I wonder how that happened then. Well, no matter. Rahmatullah's story was repeated, which is the whole idea. It's on the web. That's even better than having the people in the next village over hating terps because a terp stole Rahmatullah's phone and four bucks.

I do have to wonder about the veracity of Rahmatullah's story, given my personal experiences with interpreters. I wasn't there, so I can't say. Of course, his story contravenes everything I've seen from terps, but what do I know?

Well, that was long; and I've only covered the terp issue. It seems that there was a lot to say about terps. Perhaps the relationship with Afghan forces will have to be followed up on in another post.

1 comment:

  1. Rosemary's Thoughts says:

    Terps Without Cover...How Does This Work?

    I was reading Uncle Jimbo's post over at, and I was utterly shocked to find that someone in the brass dept. has e-mailed his edict to the underlings overseas that no interpreters are allowed to wear scarves over their head or face anymore, even though it may cost them their very lives...

    PS. Hi there! ;)


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