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Voice of America in Afghanistan

Meet the men who help US and NATO troops communicate their aims in Afghanistan — and in doing so risk their lives.

FORWARD OPERATING BASE WILSON, Afghanistan — Hamayon, a 24-year-old Afghan interpreter for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan’s dangerous south, worries less about his own life than his 15-month-old daughter and wife in Kabul. One of his fellow interpreters was about his age, with a young daughter, when he was killed last year by a suicide bomber. Hamayon says the interpreter’s family only received $8,000 in compensation from the U.S. military contractor who employed him — not much for a family to live on.

“I think sometimes my kid will be in the same situation,” he said. “It’s the most dangerous job we’re doing here. But we still do it.”

Hamayon makes about $850 a month accompanying the troops of “Dog” Company of the U.S. Army’s 1st battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment in Afghanistan’s volatile Kandahar Province. His language skills include English, Dari and Pashtu, making him a valuable asset for the military, and for his large family, who value the income.

The tent where the Alpha Company of the 1-12 infantry battalion live.
(Ben Gilbert/GlobalPost)

Hamayon is just one of thousands of Afghan interpreters hired by the U.S.-led coalition of 43 countries, called the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, to serve as an intermediary between the U.S. military and civilians in Afghanistan. Thousands more are being hired to translate for the 30,000-strong "surge" of U.S. troops streaming into the country. The new positions are providing employment to young Afghan men in a country plagued by war for the last nine years and hopes for an immigration visa to the U.S. or another of the NATO countries.

The swelling number of interpreters also means more are being killed, and not just in combat. Increasingly, the Taliban and other insurgents are targeting interpreters when they’re at home, away from the protection of the military.

“There’s been a gradual rise of local nationals who work for ISAF who have been murdered,” said Canadian Army Capt. Terry Maccormac, who, as a mentor to the Afghan army, works closely with Afghan interpreters and the 1-12 on Forward Operating Base Wilson.

An Afghan interpreter working for Canadian military mentor teams in Kandahar was murdered by the Taliban in January, according to Canwest news service. He was the first known interpreter working with Canadian forces to be killed by the Taliban, although other translators have died in roadside bomb attacks. Maccormac said the Canadian government issued a classified report this winter warning that the Taliban has begun targeting Afghans working with ISAF.

“It’s common knowledge that any of the local nationals who work for ISAF could be killed,” he said. “And these guys [interpreters] all know it as well, and that’s why their names are kept very secure.”

Most Afghans use westernized names for security reasons. Like many interpreters working for ISAF in Afghanistan’s south, Tom and James are employed by a U.S. company called Mission Essential Personnel, and are from Kabul. Still, they didn’t want their real names used in this story.

“Most of the people around here, they know our face,” said James, 24. “Whenever they come to Kabul, they see us, they say 'oh, I’ve seen this guy, he was a interpreter with the Americans. Let’s go do some things against him.'"

“They will kill us, they will execute us, because they don’t like the Afghan people like us to work with the Americans,” said a 1-12 Bravo Company interpreter named Samim, about the Taliban. “They think we are like spies. But we are just working to support our families.”

Nearly all of the interpreters say they take the risk because of the pay and possibility that the position will pay off in a ticket to new opportunities abroad.