2004 May 31 Monday
Lack Of Native Language Skills In US Soldiers In Afghanistan

I hate to bore regular readers with tirades about signs of incompetency in the US war against terrorists or in the Iraq civil war. So I'll just post some questions. Does the use of a local as an interepreter in Afghanistan by a platoon of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment sound like it is working out very well? (UK Spectator free registration required)

‘Bill’ was the platoon’s brand-new Afghan ‘terp’ — interpreter — a skinny 21-year-old student from Kabul. He wore big dark glasses, a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, a tracksuit and flip-flops. This was his first mission, and he gulped a lot from nervousness. He also barely spoke English, but he was trying hard. ‘Um, exactly he is saying that he does not know anything, sir,’ was Bill’s usual translation of long monologues by the prisoners. Undoubtedly, the men sitting on the ground had some explaining to do. Item — when the US patrol arrived in the village, a young girl was seen to run from the compound into the fields, carrying a large FM antenna in an apparent attempt to hide it. Item — during the subsequent search of an outhouse, deep in a chest full of old shoes, clothes and assorted rubbish, soldiers found a plastic bag full of brass blasting caps, a length of black cord, presumed to be detonation cord, a rusty steel grenade case, an old Soviet manual on mines, one Afghan and two Pakistani passports, all with the same photo but different names. In the thatch of the main house they discovered a dozen quick-loading clips of AK-47 ammo. The incriminating evidence had been neatly laid out in the centre of the courtyard. After three hours of systematic interrogation of the men of the house, through the inept medium of Bill the terp, confusion reigned.

We had just heard over the radio that Malik Khan — the prisoner whose face appeared in the passport photos — was the namesake of a ‘mid-level Taleban commander’ wanted by the authorities. Then the story changed — not a namesake, but a relative of a dangerous man named Khan. ‘Khan’ is a common Afghan honorific. ‘Malik’ means ‘landowner’.

Should soldiers who are going to have to go around from village to village interrogating locals have full local language skills? Are things going swimmingly when a US platoon has to use an interpreter who doesn't speak English well, who is young and seemingly untrained in interrogation, and whose loyalties lie who knows where? I'm not going to answer these questions. I'll let you decide. Also, should the soldiers perhaps be trained as detectives and have considerable training on in the local customs and ways of living and of what is or is not normal for poor Afghanis to possess? Read the whole article and you will see why I'm asking these questions.

I would like you to picture this sort of scene playing out in Iraq as US soldiers all over the country try to decide daily which Iraqis to send to, say, Abu Ghraib. Is a high level of local language skill important in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan? What's your opinion? Is the US military prepared to occupy a place like Iraq?

While I'm asking questions, I'll assume you all have read or seen news stories about how US Army military policemen who did not have local language skills or much if any interrogation training were 'assisting' the supposedly skilled interrogators in Abu Ghraib. This assistance was done after the supposedly skilled interrogators had left for the evening. The MPs were supposed to soften up the interrogatees for the next day. Now, I'm not an expert on interrogation. But I have read neat articles published in The Atlantic which is linked from my post Mark Bowden On Coercive Interrogation And Torture. If you bother to click through note what Bowden (of Black Hawk Down writing fame) has to say about the use of pain and other aspects of interrogation. Then ask yourself whether the interrogators and MPs in Abu Ghraib were following the sorts of best practice interrogation techniques that Bowden describes. (hint: the answer is "no").

I've previously reported on the Arabic language deficit among US forces in Iraq in June 2003 and in January 2004 and in February 2004. If soldiers didn't know how to fire their rifles or operate their tanks it would be a front page story. But the lack of ability to operate as detectives and to commuinicate with and interrogate the locals is a worse problem which attracts little attention.

Update: If you click through and read the full article on the soldiers in Afghanistan note that in the end it looks like the villagers being questioned are probably not launching attacks against Americans and yet they are taken into custody for further interrogation anyway. Will those villagers become more anti-American as a result? Are there people in Iraq and in Afghanistan who are now attacking US forces because of how US forces treated them or their families in custody and under interrogation? Do US forces need to have enormous amounts of cultural, linguistic, and investigational skills in order to avoid making more enemies than they already have? Do US forces have sufficient number of those needed skills? If not, are US forces making conditions worse for themselves in some areas?

Update II: Picture, if you will, US MPs in Abu Ghraib torturing some prisoners after the interrogators have gone home for the evening. The prisoners couldn't offer up information in order to get the torture to stop if the MPs couldn't even speak English and if the MPs were in no position to even understand the significance of the information being offered. Does this make you question the competence of the whole management of the interrogation process?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 May 31 01:28 AM  Military Warrior Training

MichaelA said at June 1, 2004 2:28 PM:

As always, an informative post. The formation of a language corps was one of many squandered opportunities after 9/11. It would have been an obvious move given that the FBI was unable to translate much of the intel they had collected on the hijackers. In addition, it was clear that the US would have to operate to an even greater extent than before in Central Asia and the Middle East. The government should have offered immediate assistance to all language programs in the target languages: Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Pashto etc. They should also have offered to pay the education expenses of all students willing to commit to a designated period of service, attached to whichever agency, bureau, or branch of service needed them. This intellectual capital would have been invaluable.

Fly said at June 1, 2004 3:05 PM:

Given the Arab bias of ME departments in American Universities, would giving more money to the departments have helped? Would a surge of freshly minted students from those departments help or hinder the WoT?

I agree something needed to be done. I’ve seen suggestions that the US government should have and could have hired far more Christian and Jewish speakers of Arabic. There are many Christian Iraqi’s living in the US.

I also believe the US government is funding major efforts in computer aided language translation.

ale said at October 12, 2004 9:04 AM:

That's the problem with the United States, people are too arrogant to think that they might need to learn anyone else's language, and they think that everyone should learn english, but guess what, that doesn't work if someone wants to hide something from you. My own father found this out the hard way, my mother and I speak Spanish and when we want to say something that we don't want him to understand, of course we use spanish rather than english, we can talk about anything right in front of him and he doesn't have a clue as to what we are saying. He can ask us to speak english in front of him but whether we do it or not is completely up to us and why should we speak english if we don't want to.

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