Intelligence: Translator Shortage Gets Worse


July 28, 2009: Three years ago, the United States military needed 7,200 Arabic and 750 Afghan (Pushtu or Dari) linguists. That's nearly twenty percent more than were needed the previous year. But now, the need for Arabic translators has plummeted, and the demand for Afghan ones has more than tripled. But there are only about 8,000 Pushto speakers in the United States. And most of them are women and children, or elderly men. As rare as Arab speakers are in the United States, they were far more abundant than Pushto ones.

Even annual salaries of over $200,000 are not enough to fill the need. Moreover, unscrupulous contractor recruiters sometimes induce men, who are physically incapable of handling the work of operating on the ground with infantry patrols, to sign up. Troops in Afghanistan march long distances, far more than was the case in Iraq. The military puts the new translators through a two week training program, and makes it clear what the work in Afghanistan will be like. While many of the translators drop out, others, driven by patriotism, pride or the high pay, persist. Then some of them find out that the physical demands are, indeed, more than they can handle. Some have problems with the many local dialects in southern Afghanistan. However, the contractor recruiters, who took over about two years ago, managed to up the number of needed recruiters from 41 percent of the need, to 97 percent.

Nevertheless, it's proved far more difficult to get Afghan interpreters, and their conditions of service are far different than what was encountered in Iraq. There, interpreters faced much danger from the terrorists, who threatened the Iraqi interpreters, as well as their families. Eventually, the interpreters were allowed to live on American bases.

But there were other ways to get Arabic interpreters, such as hiring them from other Arab nations. This isn't as easy as it sounds, because not a lot of these non-Iraqi Arabs can easily deal with the Iraqi dialect. But the money is attractive, and many of these linguists have learned the Iraqi dialect in order to get these jobs. There is also a feeling that Iraq will soon present many economic opportunities, providing less dangerous work for non-Iraqis who understand the Iraqi dialect. Some Arabic speaking Americans, after one tour in Iraq, have comes back to help with screening English speaking Arabs applying for interpreters. To attract the needed number of interpreters, many of the supervisory and screening personnel are hired via contractors. That way, these people, who are in short supply, can be offered enough money to induce them to take on this work.

It's very different in Afghanistan. There are far fewer bi-lingual Afghans available for the work. Illiteracy, and a general lack of education, is far greater in Afghanistan. There are far fewer Afghan speakers outside of Afghanistan. There are many Dari speakers (sort of a common second language in Afghanistan) outside of the country, but most are in Iran, and not available for recruiting.

Although the U.S. military has about 17,000 troops who speak languages like Arabic, Chinese, Farsi (Iran), Urdu (Pakistan), Hindi, and Korean, there simply aren't enough for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense is establishing the Civilian Linguist Reserve. Those who qualify (in terms of skills, and ability to get a security clearance) would be paid a monthly fee to be available, in an emergency, to come work for the military. The Pentagon found a lot of American Arabic speakers during the Iraq war, because these civilians went to work for contractors, or directly for the government, to provide translation services in the United States, Iraq and Afghanistan. But Pushto and Dari speakers are much harder to find.


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