Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is living the dream sailing in the Mediterranean with his forever spouse and a dog that is all bark and no bite. He remains the “last man standing” from the whistle-blowing era of the 1980’s when giants like Colonel John Boyd tried to force the Pentagon to get a grip on reality. As we like to point out, we lost over 1,000 tanks by D-Day +2, today the Air Force is happy with 200 really expensive, really complicated fighters that do not perform as advertised and are not relevant to 90% of our needs.
Today Chuck, whom we are proud to call a friend and mentor, takes on the core issue of translators, the DoD translator hiring program, and the question of whether the chain of command from the force commanders in the field through the US Central Command into the Pentagon, and over to the National Security Council had any idea at all: a) that competent real-time field translation is the center of gravity; and b) that we suck at it.
Below are a couple of paragraphs, followed by the CounterPunch logo link to the full Spinney unleashed story, and a Frog Right link to the Phi Beta Iota highlighting of the Associated Press story that set Chuck off.
One last comment: Winston Churchill understood America, the land that gave the world his mother. He liked to say “Americans always do the right thing–they just try everything else first.” So it has been with talking to imams and tribal leaders in Iraq, so it is now with translators. Many of us have been saying for two decades now that we need to get a grip on the 183 languages we do not speak, and contractors hired under criminally negligent conditions simply will not do. Phi Beta Iota can solve this problem in 90 days. We are not holding our breath waiting for a call from the Pentagon.
+++++++Begin Spinney Unleashed+++++++
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The requirement for alien outsiders to blend in with xenophobic insiders embodies another requirement: to succeed, blending at the tactical level must be expanded gradually and seamlessly to the strategic level of the conflict. But for this kind of bottom-up evolution to take place, at least two other conditions must be satisfied: First, troops at the lowest level of tactical organization must have the linguistic capabilities needed to communicate effectively with the locals in their own language and dialect. Second, the troops must be given enough time to evolve success from the bottom up, that is, by insensibly synthesizing the empathy skills needed to expand their blending operation from the clan/village level to the tribal/provincial level to the national level. If nothing else, Obama’s reincarnated ink spot strategy is based on the belated recognition that Bush’s seven-year strategy of trying to procure success brutishly from the top down in Afghanistan has not worked — a point made painfully clear by the rejuvenation of the Taliban in the presence of American strategy to prop up the corrupt and inept administration of its protege Hamid Karzai.
Naturally, given the central importance of (1) linguistic skills and (2) time to the success of the “new” counterinsurgency strategy, one would have thought that the Generals who sold President Obama on the new strategy appreciated both fundamental requirements and made robust provisions for providing the minimum essential building blocks to the front-line troopers tasked by the Pentagon to “shape cultural terrain” at the pointy end of the spear.
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So, how is the first and most basic necessary condition, namely the provision of linguistic capabilities, playing out in field and back home in Versailles on the Potomac?
A shocking AP Report by Jason Sraziuso describes a horrifying situation in the field. While recruiting statistics suggest, at least to the mindless bean counters in Versailles, that linguistics capabilities are building up rapidly, the information in Sraziuso’s report reveals this to be a sham. Sraziuso describes how the Pentagon’s brass hats have created and reinforced a translator crisis by relying on unscrupulous contractors to provide the crucially needed linguistics capabilities. In effect, the brass hats have made a mockery of their own strategy by short shrifting its most basic building block. Moreover, by privatizing the translator requirement, they are making an oxymoronic policy decision that effectively says the centrally important assumption of the new blending strategy — basic linguistic skills — is not important enough to be provided for in-house.
But there is more. Sraziuso goes on to show how the oxymoron is playing out in the real world of Pentagon contracting: The contractors have used false pretenses to recruit large numbers of unqualified translators. Recruiters tell prospective translators that they will not be placed in harms way, yet the the strategy requires the translators to be on the pointy end of the spear at the squad level. Recruiters are accepting translators who are physically unqualified; some are in their 60s and 70s, have not been required to pass physical fitness exams, have heart conditions, or are not acclimated to the effects of searing heat and high altitude. Yet upon arrival in Afghanistan, these recruits discover they are expected to hump it with the grunts. Not surprisingly, many quit. Incredibly, Sraziuso cites instances where recruiters have recruited translators with the wrong language skill — e.g., recruiting Dari-only speakers to translate Pashto. An, oh by the way, the whole process is greased Pentagon-style with gobs of money: Class II translators are bribed to join in this sham with base salaries of over $210,000 per year. No doubt, these a little research would find that these exorbitant salaries inflate profits, because they are added to the companies’ cost bases, which are used in the cost-reimbursement clauses of cost-plus contracts. Despite such bloated salaries, many translators quite sensibly call in sick or quit, once they realize what they have gotten into. Not surprisingly, soldiers also told Sraziuso they are being endangered by this incompetent give way, because when the translators can not talk to locals, they can not provide the local intelligence needed by the soldiers to avoid ambushes and boob traps. The greater strategic requirement to blend into and build empathy with the local cultures is not addressed by Sraziuso, but the implication is clear.