Afghan "terps" risk lives to work with U.S. forces

FARAH CITY, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Ahmad Shakib says he knows he is risking his life to work for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but with a casual shrug and an idiomatic American twang, he laughs off the danger.

“Afraid of the Taliban? No, I’m the man,” said Shakib, 22, one of thousands of Afghans recruited to work with U.S. and NATO forces as interpreters, or “terps.”

Terps have been killed alongside U.S. and NATO colleagues on operations, and others have been targeted by militants who accuse them of collaborating with foreign forces.

The U.S. government offers military interpreters the prospect of an immigrant’s visa to the United States after two years. Shakib says that’s what tempts some. But he’d do it anyway.

“I like this job. I like helping the people, helping the Americans. The way they do their job, I just love it,” he said.

“My family worry about me. The say you’re in danger. But it’s the way I like it.”

His job means he can no longer go back to Kandahar, the southern city that was the birthplace of the Taliban in the 1990s, where he went to school and his brother still lives.

“(A relative) could say ‘oh by the way, my cousin is an interpreter, he’s working with the Americans’. So they (the Taliban) will be like let’s go and pop him,” Shakib said, using U.S. slang for an assassination.

“Bad guys are everywhere. If they get information of course they are going to harm me. But I don’t care.”

Afghan truck drivers listen to a US Marine (front R) and his interpreter during a route clearance mission in southern Kunar Province December 28, 2008. REUTERS/Bob Strong


Captain Christopher Garvin, who trains the Afghan army in Farah, a desert province on the Iranian border, says he relies on his terps for more than just the language.

“Coming here the first challenge was to fully understand the culture and how they like to operate,” said Garvin. “Having a good interpreter is the key.”

Garvin’s interpreter, Yama Ellyassi, said he joined the Americans in part because of the pay and the prospect of a visa, but mainly because it offered a chance to help defeat the Taliban who imprisoned and beat his father while in power before 2001.

On an Afghan army base last week, Ellyassi stood between Garvin and Afghan Lieutenant-Colonel Khalil Nehmatullah as they discussed final plans for an opium poppy eradication mission.

He has had to learn military lingo on the job, and says he practices making sure he has the technical terms correct.

“A minor mistake can cause a big problem,” he said.

He relates the story of an interpreter who mistakenly told a unit of Afghan police to “fire” when he should have said “ceasefire.” The mistranslation resulted in several casualties and a mission which ended in disaster.

Shakib said sometimes he is required to translate a tone of voice and body language, as well as just words.

“A lot of times when you are translating English you have to use something from yourself also. If a guy is angry you have to get that across.”

Soldiers need to be careful to make sure their interpreters understand their slang, said Sergeant Brian Wood, who works on Garvin’s team and manages the terps.

“They can translate it word for word but to them it doesn’t make sense like it does for us. Like ‘to beat feet’ would be to run away. To them it’s like, ‘What’s that? You want to beat my feet?’,” he said.

“I mean lost in translation is a given, it’ll happen here and there,” Wood said. “Here in combat, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, with interpreters, their word could literally mean the difference between life or death.”

Editing by Jeremy Laurence