Army translators tough to find

The day after President Barack Obama declared an end to the combat mission in Iraq, Aman Zamani walked the main thoroughfare of Little Persia to recruit soldiers for the country’s other war.

He strolled down Westwood Boulevard, passing an Iranian music store and young men in Armani jeans, and walked into Saffron & Rose Ice Cream. He chatted with the owner in Farsi and ordered white rose ice cream with milk, fulfilling a cultural obligation to make a purchase from a shopkeeper before talking business. A map of ancient Persia hung on a wall by the door.

Zamani knew the shop was popular with young Afghans and Iranians, so he’d brought along a thick stack of business cards. But today, the shop was empty. He finished his ice cream and left.


“It is a hard job to find the right person to recruit for the Army,” he said.

As the United States continues its military shift from Iraq to Afghanistan, the recruitment of Army translators and interpreters has followed, and Zamani, a contractor who recruits for the Army, is among those who have fanned out to Afghan and Persian communities and shopping districts looking for potential linguists to help fight the war.

The recruitment trail can be challenging. The pool of candidates who speak Dari, Pashto or Farsi is far thinner than the Arabic speakers the military sought out during the Iraq war. And many in the communities have reservations about the war.

The Army has been able to sign up only nine Los Angeles-area recruits for the language program in the last year, far short of the goal of 48 local enlistees and just a fraction of the 250 signed nationwide.

“It’s a much smaller population.... We’re involved in a lot of community liaison activities and I expect this year to do more than in years past,” said Lt. Col. Frank Demith, assistant deputy for foreign language and culture for the Army. “It’s much harder to recruit.”

The Army’s projected shortage of translators comes at a time when the need is most crucial -- as the U.S. ramps up preparing an Afghan police, army and justice system and meeting with local councils in preparation for an eventual U.S. withdrawal.

Last weekend, NATO leaders set a goal of 2014 to transfer security responsibilities to the Afghan government -- a longer timeline than initially thought -- as alliance forces increasingly focus on training, advising and logistics, areas in which specialized linguists are critical.

“You’re not simply looking for language, you’re looking for expertise, you’re looking for people who can operate in combat zones, you’re looking for people who can work with local officials,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Once enlisted, recruits go through basic training, though when deployed their names are not stitched onto their uniforms for security reasons. Some are quickly shipped to Afghanistan; others -- especially women -- remain stateside to train soldiers preparing to deploy.

On the front lines, translators often accompany commanders and high-level officials to meetings with Afghan governors and leaders. Sometimes their value goes beyond simple translations.

One soldier, who asked not to be identified because of security risks, recounted interceding when he saw U.S. soldiers shooting toward a mountain pass in Afghanistan during target practice. The soldier, who had grown up in the area, knew there was a village on the other side of the mountains and believes he probably prevented casualties.

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz authorized the recruitment of soldiers with special language and cultural skills in 2003 after the U.S. invaded Iraq. At the time, the main focus was on Arabic, Turkish and Kurdish.

“Our mission mirrored our presence overseas,” Demith said.

Although military action began first in Afghanistan, Iraq was viewed as the longer commitment and Arabic remained the military’s main focus until troop deployment to Afghanistan began to spike.

The Arab population in the U.S. is three times larger than the Afghan and Persian population, and winning recruits in those communities is complicated because military contractors compete for the same pool of applicants, offering better pay.

Zamani, born in Kabul and a U.S. resident since 1981, began with the Los Angeles Army battalion in April but recently quit the assignment because of the long drive from his home in south Orange County.

He now works for private firms that recruit for the Army.

During his six-month stint with the Army, Zamani met with potential recruits to explain the program and test their native language skills. It was a less-than-exhaustive examination.

“Can you tell me in Pashto, ‘I want to go to Afghanistan to work for the people?’ ” he asked a man who had been brought by a recruiter to the battalion in Encino.

The man, whose long black hair fell to his chin, repeated the sentence in Pashto.

“I want to join with the U.S. Army,” Zamani said, giving the man another line, which he repeated successfully. “OK, he speaks Pashto, English is good, whatever the process is you can start it.”

“That’s it?” the man asked, surprised.

Zamani gave him handouts in both English and Pashto and told him about the signing bonus, education money and citizenship. Even though the man was going on two years of unemployment with mounting debt, he still wasn’t eager to enlist.

The pitch to potential enlistees mainly focuses on the benefits, long-term stability and expedited citizenship rather than a patriotic appeal.

Occasionally, Zamani was confronted by people who felt his recruitment on behalf of the Army was a betrayal.

But recruiters could find a more receptive audience within these new communities because inside forces that predate the U.S. invasion are also blamed for the turmoil in Afghanistan, said Saeed Khan, a history professor at Wayne State University who specializes in Muslim identity in the West. The Iraq war and resulting sectarian violence, on the other hand, was viewed as a consequence of America’s actions.

On the day Zamani walked up and down a mostly empty Westwood Boulevard, he returned to his 1992 Jaguar with 30 minutes still on the parking meter and a thick stack of cards left in his pocket. Patsy Rubio, a public information officer with the battalion who accompanied him, brought back a stack of ethnic newspapers in which she wanted to place ads.

They drove to a Persian restaurant for lunch. Zamani had previously tried leaving some of his cards at the restaurant but was turned down by the owner. Zamani didn’t ask why.

On the drive, he pointed out a hookah bar where young Afghans and Iranians hang out and smoke.

“So you think a hookah bar would be a good place to advertise?” Rubio asked.

“No, it might be a good place to go and talk to people,” he said, but then added after a slight pause, “but they will be drinking, so maybe not a good place to talk to them.”