Army interpreters fear for lives if left to face the Taliban

Settled in ... between sorties, cricket is the game.
Settled in ... between sorties, cricket is the game.

AFGHAN interpreters used by Australian forces fear they will be left behind to face certain death with the imminent drawing down of troop numbers.

The Gillard government is refusing to outline what protection will be offered to the interpreters after Australian soldiers withdraw from all patrol and forward operating bases.

The government will need to decide over the next six weeks whether it will offer residency to interpreters, as it did after the Iraq war and for which senior officers are arguing.

Afghan interpreters have said they also fear for the lives of their families.

Taliban fighters have threatened interpreters who work with Coalition forces. One, who cannot be named for his own protection, said his mother recently received a letter from the Taliban telling him to stop working with the foreign forces, or be killed.

He said he's concerned about his Australian employer leaving. "When the Australians leave I have no choice. If I stay in Afghanistan I am going to get killed. I'm going to try and go to Australia. And if I couldn't, I'm going to go somewhere else."

In a written statement the Defence Department said decisions about Afghan interpreters and other officials would be ''based on an assessment of the security situation and …. considered in the context of our post-transition planning''.

The statement said some Australian soldiers would remain in Afghanistan after the main forces withdraw in 2014.

''Australia expects to maintain a presence following transition to Afghan security authorities and we will remain committed to ensuring the safety of all of our personnel, including local members of staff.''

But much of the responsibility of maintaining security in Oruzgan province, where Australian forces are based, is being handed over the Afghan army in the coming weeks. Australians will be falling back to the main base at Tarin Kowt, leaving need for fewer interpreters.

At least six interpreters are based at Forward Operating Base Mirwais in the Chora Valley, to be handed over to the Afghan army before January.

The officer commanding at Mirwais said his men respect the interpreters for the risks they take in working with them.

"A lot of the interpreters take a great personal risk assisting the Australians and a number of them have provided a great service over a number of years.

"I do hope the interpreters are well looked after and cared for when we leave," he said.

Platoon commander at FOB Mirwais, Lieutenant Gareth Shrubb, takes two interpreters with him when he goes outside the wire. He said he wouldn't have been able to do his job without "terps" - the army lingo for interpreters.

"I certainly hope they're looked after. They've worked by our sides the last couple of years. They've been in the same level of danger as we have," he said.

Former chief of the army Peter Leahy, who backed resettlement of Iraqi interpreters in 2008, said the same chance should be given to Afghans.

''They've helped us, they've shared the dangers … we should therefore look at affording the same opportunities for interpreters in Afghanistan as we did to the Iraqis,'' said Professor Leahy, who is now director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra.

He said interpreters did more than just ''tell you what the other bloke said''. They often became good friends with Australian soldiers.

''It's a pretty vital relationship,'' he said. ''They can alert you to dangers, they can alert you to opportunities and just in your own self-interest you'd better get to know them. I think it's time to be making those decisions.''

This story Army interpreters fear for lives if left to face the Taliban first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.