Defense Security Cooperation Agency
July 12, 2010: There are some things money can't buy. One of them is people who can speak and read Pushto and Dari (the two principle languages of Afghanistan) and able to get a Top Secret security clearance. For the latter, you have to be a U.S. citizen. Few American citizens have learned these languages in the few universities that teach them. So the most common source is Afghans who have migrated to the United States. There have been quite a few of those since the 1980s (when the Russians invaded Afghanistan). But not enough. It's estimated that only about 2-3,000 of these migrants (or their adult children) have the right language skills, and can get a security clearance (must be a citizen, and be above suspicion and not subject to having close kin back in Afghanistan threatened as a way to force you to give up secrets.) Most Afghan migrants to the U.S. could speak Pushto or Dari (about 20 percent of Afghans speak other languages), but many were unable to read the written form. Less than a quarter of Afghans are literate.
While locals can be hired in Afghanistan to handle translation duties out in the field, you need literate translators, with a security clearance, to handle questioning of prisoners and examination of captured documents. These two jobs are extremely important, and that is why literate translators with security clearances get $170,000-200,000 a year (plus expenses), and the contractor that finds and recruits them gets over $200,000. Although many of these translators rarely leave their Afghan bases, others are constantly on the road, in support of combat, civil affairs or intelligence units. However, the translators are less likely to be killed or wounded than the combat troops. But families, particularly wives, are usually hostile to the idea of their husband spending a year or more in a war zone. So, many of the translators are kids right out of high school, or guys old enough to be their grandfathers.
The shortage has gotten worse as more resources, to deal with the roadside bombs, have been moved from Iraq to Afghanistan. This effort depended a lot on intelligence work, and this required having lots of people to translate radio and cell-phone traffic, and read captured documents. This has to be done quickly, often in real-time, in order to identify and catch those responsible for making and placing the bombs.
This shortage of high end translators is shaping up to be the bottleneck in deploying an effective anti-IED (Improvised Explosive Device, or roadside bomb) effort in Afghanistan. To break the logjam, the Department of Defense is offering to provide literacy classes for those who can already speak the languages, as well as additional language training for second generation Afghan-Americans who, as is common with all migrants, do not pick up enough of their parents' or grandparents' native language.