Afghanistan: The Power of Interpretation

Afghanistan: The Power of Interpretation

“Too often, stories about Afghanistan center around the various wars, the opium trade, the war on terrorism. Precious little is said about the Afghan people themselves – their culture, their traditions, how they lived in their country, and how they manage abroad as exiles.”

– Khaled Hosseini

Afghanistan has dominated the headlines this month both here and across the world. From news stations to social media, from print to YouTube, the images have defined the news cycle and the end of a chapter that has been in the making for twenty years.

Regardless of your voting preference or if you strongly align yourself red or blue, we can all agree that the price of humanity is not bound by a political party.  Whether you agree with the withdrawal, believe that troops should have stayed longer, or sit somewhere in the middle of those polarized views, there is no shame in feeling sadness as to the events that are unfolding.

This article will look at the people on the ground in Afghanistan who have been there over the last years working as interpreters, telling their story and what they are feeling today about what has been happening over the past few weeks.

How The War Unfolded

The campaign in Afghanistan started covertly on September 26 2001, with a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) team known as Jawbreaker arriving in the country and, working with anti-Taliban allies, initiating a strategy for overthrowing the regime. U.S. officials hoped that by partnering with the Afghans they could avoid deploying a large force to Afghanistan.

In late October, Northern Alliance forces began to overtake a series of towns formerly held by the Taliban. The forces worked with U.S. assistance, but they defied U.S. wishes when, on November 13, they marched into Kabul as the Taliban retreated without a fight. Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan and the Taliban’s spiritual home, fell on December 6, marking the end of Taliban power.

With the ouster of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the international focus shifted to reconstruction and nation-building efforts in Afghanistan. (Source)

The Role of The Afghan Interpreters

It is important to note that interpreters are not seen as military personnel by governments but instead as contracted civilians. During America’s longest war, interpreters became an essential part of the operations both on the ground and in strategic planning. Whilst interpreters are not trained in combat, they worked side by side with troops daily, facing the same perils as armed forces. Many servicemen look back now on what interpreters gave them which was so much more than literal translation:

“I was uncertain of the legitimacy of our presence in Afghanistan. In search of justification for my place there, I turned to the interpreters, a natural target for my many questions. What did the Afghan people think of us being there? I needed to know. Did they trust us? Were they scared of us? In answering, they interpreted more than the language. They helped all of us to better understand the people, the place, the situation.” – Clive Lewis, former British Soldier and now MP.

Now, those interpreters are set to pay the ultimate price.

The Situation on The Ground for Afghan Interpreters

The outlook is bleak. Promises have been made by the Taliban, which has now taken total control of the country once more. However, as August 31, 2021, the agreed date of US withdrawal, looms closer, many Afghan nationals who supported international troops and worked alongside them will almost certainly face retribution from the Taliban.

Afghans who worked as interpreters for the United States have applied for evacuation, the White House said Thursday. “There are approximately 20,000 Afghans who have applied,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

The Complications for Afghan Interpreters

The only way for interpreters to leave Afghanistan is via Kabul airport which is currently under the control of US forces. However, the Taliban have created a barricade around the perimeter so no one can pass without clearing the Taliban checkpoint.

Some of the interpreters are eligible to leave but have been unable to reach the airport safely now due to crowds and the checkpoints. Others applied for visas years ago but their applications have been stuck in a bureaucratic limbo, and are now unsure if they will be able to leave.

The process has been complicated even further as fleeing embassy staff have destroyed many documents and passports. The documents have been destroyed in order to protect the citizens, as should these documents be found by the Taliban, there could be fatal consequences for anyone whose name is among the passports, visa applications, and other secure data. Unfortunately, it is the best way to secure their anonymity against the Taliban but then also leaves thousands stranded with no proof that they should be able to leave the country.

Broken Promises

Whilst the Taliban has made its assurances, the coverage tells a different story. The militant Islamist group is said to be carrying out door-to-door searches while violent scenes have also been reported at some Taliban-controlled checkpoints.


Usman, who worked as an interpreter for the British armed forces, was sheltering with his wife and some neighbors when the Taliban came. He was woken in the early hours of the morning and told the group was nearby.

“They were searching door-to-door,” he told the BBC’s World at One program. “Everyone panicked – then the news spread to every other house. A neighbor said they were searching for weapons, documents, and government vehicles. They were trying to find out who had worked for NATO or the government. I put on my clothes and just jumped over a wall and ran away. I know that I am going to be killed. There is no other way.”

Usman was told he was eligible for relocating to the UK in December, but after all his paperwork was processed, he received a letter of rejection on Friday.


Hashem, a translator, was sheltering in an apartment in one of the country’s biggest cities.

“I’ve been working with intermediary forces and thought the US and German governments would help, I have had to destroy all my documents. I had the courage to go to Kabul airport, and someone from the Taliban told me there had been fake news spreading that the Americans would take people out. He told me to tell others not to go to the airport. We’re discussing plans about what we can do to flee to another country.

Aida and Saabira

It is not just those who have worked for international governments who are fearful. Two women who worked for a media outlet are in hiding and say the Taliban are searching for them.

“They have twice called at my house… looking for me and my husband, they are asking other members of my family where we are and they have also been sending me threatening texts. They say that when they find me, they will kill me. I feel desperate and stressed about what will happen to me and my family,” – Aida

“Right now, we are like turkeys in our homes, we can’t go out because the Taliban are all around us. The Taliban are trying to find government workers, journalists, and women’s rights activists. We are really worried – what if they come to our home? What if they knock on our door? The airport is not possible for us because we haven’t got a visa. We haven’t got money or any support, so it’s impossible.” – Saabira

Sohail Pardis

Sohail Pardis was driving from his home in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul to nearby Khost province to pick up his sister, his vehicle was blocked at a checkpoint by Taliban militants. Just days before, Pardis had confided to his friend that he was receiving death threats from the Taliban, who had discovered he had worked as a translator for the United States Army for 16 months during the 20-year-long conflict.

“They were telling him you are a spy for the Americans, you are the eyes of the Americans and you are infidel, and we will kill you and your family,” As he approached the checkpoint, Pardis put his foot on the accelerator to speed through. He was not seen alive again. Villagers who witnessed the incident reported that the Taliban shot his car before it swerved and stopped. They then dragged Pardis out of the vehicle and beheaded him. (Source)

There is Hope in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has gone through a lot of transformation in the last 20 years and is a different country from the one the Taliban left in 2001. Khaled Hosseini told BBC World News and that his one sliver of hope was that the Taliban would realize the country had changed and that they would adapt to the times.

Something that the Taliban cannot take from Afghanis is the freedom they have now tasted and the thirst for change. As always, in times of crisis there are stories of hope, and in the darkest days of humanity is when we can see the brightest sparks of selfless human nature.

No One Left Behind

No One Left Behind is the only nationwide nonprofit committed to ensuring that America keeps its promise to its allies and their families who risked their lives in Afghanistan: “We keep our nation’s promise by trying to fix the State Department’s 14-step SIV process with its 3.5 year wait time and by providing emergency financial aid and used vehicles to newly-arrived interpreters. Last year we helped 636 SIV families in 93 cities in 20 states with over $430,000.”


Several countries around the world have pledged to resettle thousands of Afghan refugees recognizing the danger they now face as well as the sacrifices they have made in helping military forces during the occupation. Here are some of the numbers pledged:

United States – 30,000 Afghan refugees and visa applicants will be given sanctuary on bases in the US, including Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and Fort Bliss in Texas

United Kingdom – 20,000 Afghan refugees to seek sanctuary in the UK over the coming years, with a focus on women, children, and religious minorities.

Germany – May grant asylum to some 10,000 Afghans who worked with the army as well as human rights activists and lawyers.

Australia – Intend to resettle 3,000 Afghan refugees through an existing humanitarian program this year.

France – In a speech on Monday night, Macron said France was ready to help activists, artists, and journalists who risk being targeted but did not confirm a number.

Tajikistan – Announced it is preparing to take in up to 100,000 refugees from neighboring Afghanistan.

Uganda – Agreed to a request from the US to take in temporarily 2,000 refugees from Afghanistan.

A Fast-Approaching Deadline

Right now, as the situation stands there is no conclusion. Ideally, US troops and their allies need more time to ensure the swift but safe evacuation of interpreters and their families. But in a recent statement from the Taliban representatives, there will be no extension to the August 31 date set. And so far, the Pentagon has not sought to negotiate an extension.

Thousands of people have been evacuated but chaos continues in and around Kabul airport for those seeking asylum. Other countries like the UK, France, and Germany have stated they would like to extend the deadline to ensure evacuations can continue and no one is left behind. But they have also stated that without the assistance of US troops it would be impossible for them to stay and keep Kabul airport secure.

Looking Back Over the Past 20 Years

During the longest war America has seen in its history there have been achievements. Afghanistan has seen a huge amount of investment in its Afghan National Army and police force. Governance, education, healthcare, and development also saw billions of dollars injected into them while smaller amounts were also allocated for anti-drug efforts and humanitarian aid.

Perhaps some of the more notable and visible changes have been for women. In 2001, the number of females over age 8 in schools was 0. By 2012 this had risen to 2.9 million. Under new Afghan law, females all across the country are now permitted to drive vehicles. They are also permitted to participate in certain international events such as the Olympic Games and robot competitions.

Life expectancy increased slightly from 56 to 60 years. According to the UN, access to safe drinking water improved from 4.8% of the population to 60.6% by 2011.

Unsung Heroes

Translation and interpretation open the world, crosses borders, and gives people from different religions, countries, cultures, and societies the ability to communicate. It is in this communication that as humans we have achieved so many great things across the world. By working together towards common goals, we have broken down barriers for a better future.

Whatever the fate of Afghani interpreters, there can be no denying their bravery. Over the past 20 years, they have put themselves and their family at risk to help with the occupation and pave the way to a new Afghanistan. Watching the withdrawal unfold and the fall of their government as the Taliban has swept across the nation does not make their efforts meaningless. If anything, it only highlights the high price they were willing to pay for a better, safer future.

The Translation Company

At The Translation company, we work overseas and across borders uniting people through language to help them achieve their goals. If you are affected by the current situation in Afghanistan and need further assistance in translation or interpretation, do not hesitate to reach out to our team. We are always here for you. You can contact ushere for more information.

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