Iraqi, Afghan translators abandoned to their fates
LONDON--Armies serving abroad do not just need weaponry and logistics. More often than not they simply cannot function without the support of local interpreters. Throughout the long and bitter conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of these individuals have worked alongside Western soldiers and officials, translating not simply words but also the complex cultures of which the European and American military were all too often largely ignorant.
The interpreter’s work might have had perks in a time of chaos, such as reasonable, reliable pay and some access to the goods and services that supported occupying armies. However, these individuals also ran risks, not least because some at least of their fellow citizens regarded them as turncoats, traitors supporting occupying powers.
As the last US troops prepare to pull out of Afghanistan and the American deployment in Iraq and Syria is being further run down, many of the translators who were essential to this presence are being abandoned and they and their families are facing a dangerous future. Schemes that once relocated interpreters, offering them new lives in the countries whose armies they had served have mostly run out. For those working for the last remaining Western forces, the future is suddenly bleak.
Bel Trew, the Middle East correspondent of the UK’s Independent newspaper has interviewed despairing Iraqi interpreters who have hustled their families to hopefully safe locations while they themselves have gone into hiding.
Eight of the translators said they fear for their lives after being employed by a subcontracting company to work with British special forces at Camp Taji, about 40 kilometres north of Baghdad. From 2018 until the pandemic hit in March last year, they were translating for British advisers who ran training programmes for Iraqi special forces at the base.
The men claim their personal information, which was requested on behalf of British forces last March, was then shared with the Iraqi security forces without their consent.
As a result it ended up in the hands of powerful Iranian-backed Shia militia groups which violently oppose the presence of foreign forces and have repeatedly threatened Iraqis who work with them.
The plight of interpreters hired by the Americans seems little better. Personal information given as requested to the administration at the Union III headquarters of the US-led coalition, ended up being published by the Iranian-backed militia news agency Sabreen, according to a report last year in the Washington Post. The data included home addresses and even the types of car the translators drove.
Last October, the same news agency put out a specific threat against interpreters working for the British. Moreover, it seems clear that the invective against Iraqis working for coalition forces has become the stronger since the US assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and his Iraqi lieutenant Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in an airstrike outside Baghdad airport early last year.
A further threat has been a demand from militias that, in return for their safety and large sums of money, Iraqi translators working for foreign forces should become informers.
One of the eight translators who spoke to the Independent received in an envelope three AK-47 bullets, representing each member of his family including his child, with a message that read: “You will not have mercy from us.”
Another said that a group of strange men appeared on his road in a white SUV and began questioning his neighbours about his work.
“They were watching the house. They knew my name. It was at that point I decided to leave my house, and send my wife and kid away. I haven’t seen them since then. I can’t walk in the streets. I’m caged,” he said.
The problem for the interpreters working with British forces is that they have missed out on a 2007 special protection scheme put in place after several were kidnapped, tortured and killed, along with their families. That scheme allowed Iraqi civilian employees who had helped the British military during the war to be given one-off payments and exceptional indefinite leave to relocate to the UK or resettle somewhere else.
However, unlike a similar British scheme in Afghanistan, which is still running, the programme for Iraqis has closed.
The dilemma for the Iraqi interpreters is compounded by the fact that they were not employed directly by the British military but by military subcontractors. This has enabled London to distance itself from the translators, while denying that their details were shared with anyone except Iraqi security forces, to enable their access to a UK base. However, it would very much appear that the official sharing of that information has enabled it to fall into the hands of militias bent on punishing the translators.
Questions in the British parliament and lobbying by human rights campaigners are currently meeting little response from the UK ministry of defence and the interior ministry, the Home Office.
The translators complain they are in limbo, “waiting to be killed”.
“When we started working for the British” one of them explained to the Independent, “they told us we were ‘part of the family’, but they have abandoned us. We don’t care where we go, we just want to be relocated somewhere safe. Even animals have rights in the UK. We would like the basic rights the animals in your country get. I don’t ask more than that.”
In Afghanistan, with just weeks to go until US and NATO troops complete their withdrawal, translators who worked for foreign forces are also desperate to leave the country.
Embassies have issued thousands of visas to Afghan interpreters and their immediate families, but many have had their applications declined, some told AFP for reasons that were never fully explained.
“When an imam is not safe in a mosque or a 10-year-old girl is not safe in her school… how can we be safe?” asks Omid Mahmoodi, an interpreter attached to US forces between 2018 and 2020.
His work in Kabul and the southern Taliban bastion of Kandahar ended after he failed a routine polygraph test and he has since been refused a US visa.
Even though scientists agree there is little evidence lie-detector tests are reliable, they are still used by the United States, particularly when hiring people in sensitive roles.
Campaigners say those who have been dismissed by foreign forces deserve to have their visa cases reconsidered, as the Taliban will treat them all as collaborators.
“They are tracking us,” said Mahmoodi. “The Taliban will not pardon us. They will kill us and they will behead us.”
Omar, is another translator who fears that unless he leaves the country, he will not evade the Taliban for long.
He worked for the US embassy for around ten years, but his contract was terminated after he also failed a polygraph test.
“I regret working for the US. It was the biggest mistake of my life,” said Omar, who asked AFP not to use his full name.
While dozens of interpreters have been killed and tortured over the past two decades by militants, threats also come from even closer to home.
“My own uncle and cousins call me an agent of America,” Omar said.
At a protest in Kabul last week, 32-year-old Waheedullah Hanifi said French officials turned down his bid for asylum after telling him they did not believe he was in danger. He appealed in 2019 but has still not heard the outcome. He worked with the French military between 2010 and 2012, when Paris pulled out its combat troops.
“We were the voice… for the French troops in Afghanistan and now they have left us to the Taliban,” said the father of two.
He is now terrified of being hunted down.
“If I stay in the country, there is no chance of survival for me. The French army has betrayed us.”
For those who have been given passage out of Afghanistan, the fight to protect loved ones they have had to leave behind continues.
Jamal, 29, an interpreter for British forces, was shot twice during operations before being granted residency in Britain in 2015 where he settled in Coventry.
Six years later, his wife has only just been given clearance by the UK to join him.
His father, who worked as a groundskeeper on a British military base, remains in Lashkar Gah, the scene of intense fighting between the Taliban and government forces in recent months.
“When you’ve worked for the British army, when you’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with the British army, you expect something,” said Jamal.