Small Wars Journal

The Hidden Engagement: Interpreters

Mon, 05/17/2010 - 10:01pm
The Hidden Engagement: Interpreters

by Captain Don Moss

Download the full article: The Hidden Engagement: Interpreters

Author's Note: This article represents the second in a series of papers (see Engaging Afghans: KLE Keys to Success) addressed to units and individuals involved in direct engagement with the people of Afghanistan. The intent is to provide advice and "lessons learned" based on first-hand experience in order to deepen the Afghan-ISAF partnership through relationships.

In Afghanistan, there is a growing focus on the importance of partnering with Afghan institutions and building their capacity through broad, meaningful engagement. However, your unit's efforts to positively engage with local tribes, religious, military and government figures, you may be overlooking a critical engagement much closer to home: your own interpreters.

With the arrival of thousands of additional troops in Afghanistan this year, the need for interpreters or Host Nation Linguists (HNLs) will also skyrocket. Even now, there are upwards of 5,000 men and women working for the primary HNL employer, Mission Essential Personnel, alone. Highly intelligent (often speaking 3-4 languages), hard-working and cultural experts, HNLs represent a valuable asset and learning conduit. Often, the HNLs your unit inherits have years of experience dealing in the local area and with personalities your team will encounter. This enables them to provide valuable insight long after your predecessors depart, usually after far too little turnover. That said, this article contains some suggestions for engaging with your HNLs and making it a productive, long-term relationship that will pave the way for all others.

Download the full article: The Hidden Engagement: Interpreters

Captain Don Moss was the Chief of Intelligence Operations for Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) Paktya in Eastern Afghanistan, 2008-2009. He is a 19-year veteran of the United States Air Force and the intelligence profession. A graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School and Defense Language Institute, he has led or participated in over 40 Key Leader Engagements and compiled summaries of over 400 more with Provincial Governmental/religious/tribal and village leaders.

Suggested Readings:

Afghanistan: Maladies of Interpreters by Joshua Foust

Unfit Interpreters by Joshua Foust

About the Author(s)


Yusuf (not verified)

Tue, 08/24/2010 - 5:49am

Hello to all of you.
Just wondering how can i become a terp,i'm a US citizen (living in US) and speak about 3 languages: English/French/somali.
I've been looking to be a terp for quite a while now,mainly in Djibouti/Somalia or even in France.My priority is to serve my country.
Thanks for your help.

Don Moss (not verified)

Thu, 06/10/2010 - 3:23pm

Gentlemen... Thanks to both of you for commenting on the interpreter slant... Glad folks realize the importance of the relationship... Maj Gant, good luck in recognizing "Mack". We had a small ceremony with a powerpoint "CAB" for our interpreters who came under fire with us and it was much less than what they deserved but, I fear, more than they'd ever received. Efforts to recognize interpreters must continue. Look forward to your paper on Mack and Iraq. Morgan, appreciate the exchange and commentary. Too many passive observers out there so input is appreciated.

Out to Iraq very soon, safe travels to you both.



As I recall, Joe Galloway, co-author of "We were soldiers once...and young", was a civilian, UPI reporter with LTC Harold Moore and the Battle of LZ X-Ray. Galloway was awarded a BSM for his actions there, albeit years after the fact.

Surely this (and others examples, I suspect) can be cited as justification for an award of equal caliber for "Mack", who apparently did quite a bit more than Mr Galloway....and that is not intended to diminish what Galloway did at X-Ray.

Just a thought.


Sat, 06/05/2010 - 9:08pm


Thanks for giving a damn and replying. In '06 when this occurred I tried to put him for a Bronze Star with V and it got sent back to me saying he was not available for a military award because of his "status." I have went on that for the last three years. When this got kicked back again (DEPT of the ARMY) said "Submit him for a military award", here we are.

Gonna keep trying.

My faith that "Mack" will ever hang a medal around his neck for the bravery he showed that day fighting alongside US and Iraqi forces is, well, zero...but you can bet I will continue to try.

Thanks again brother. Don't do what's right, do what's best!


Jim Gant

MAJ Gant,

I think I already know the answer but do you think putting "Mack" in for an Army award (BSM, SS) might prove more successful?


Thu, 06/03/2010 - 4:16pm

While working in Iraq as the primary advisor of a National Police Quiuck Reaction Force battalion for 15 months, I can without hesitation say that my interpreter "Mack" was the most important part of what allowed me to be successful. I spent all of my time with him and my counter-part and TOGETHER we were able to build a relationship that allowed us to be extremely successful on the battlefield and very close friends as well. The relationship built there has transcended time. I am still in contact with my good friend Col Dhafer in Iraq (he will be making General soon) and "Mack" is still my best friend. He came to the States about four months after I got home from deployment and lived with me and my family for almost a year. He is doing very well. He and his wife (who he married in Iraq) had a beautiful little boy about a year ago who of course was born a US citizen. I said all of that to emphasize the deep friendship that was forged in combat and that I still cherish to this day. "Mack" was not only my interpreter and primary advisor, but the sole reason I am alive today. He was a great fighter and knew no fear. On the day I won my Silver Star it was "Mack" who time and time again exposed himself to withering enemy fire that allowed me, the team and our Iraqi's to do the things necessary to defeat the enemy that day. I put him in for the "Office of the Secretary of Defense Award for Valor" an award he clearly deserved. After close to three years fighting the Army administrative system it got turned down yet again about two months ago. Disappointing but not suprising. I am detailing my experience with "Mack" and my Iraqi unit in a paper I hope to be done with soon.

In closing, your interpreter is a pillar that you must have to be successful when working with any host-nation force and that relationship has to be fostered with great care.

So, here's to you "Mack", my brother!



CPT Moss is spot-on. Your terp is a valuable resource and often a great person to be with. I was fortunate in both Kabul and Kandahar to work with great terps. In Kabul in particular, my terp, Javid, was an outstanding resource. He and I, prior to my meeting with the kandak S4 and S1, would discuss the specifics of what I wated to discuss that day. Often, Javid would remind me of particular points from previous discussions and clue me in on things he thought I ought to know or things I ought to avoid bringing up.

Ensure your terp is an integral part of your team. I'll probably get in trouble for this but, in Kandahar, we ensured that our terps were armed whenever we went to crappy areas. They were helping us do our jobs, the least we could do was to give them a fighting chance for survival. They were worth it.