18 November 2008

Iraqi Terps The Latest Victims of the Good Idea Fairy

Interpreters May Have to Reveal Their Identities in Well Thought-out Plan

In the world of counter-insurgency, interpreters (or terps) are crucial individuals to ensuring that our troops break down the language and cultural barrier to get the natives on the side of the good guys. Obviously, our troops go into some dangerous neighborhoods (why else would they need to patrol), so revealing the identity of an Iraqi interpreter may put him/her at great risk of being targeted by the local thugs for colluding with the "infidel".

But, Brandon Friedman notes that caution has been thrown to the wind, and interpreters are required to take off that mask in the name of professionalism. From Washington Post:

Many Iraqis, however, fear the relative calm won't last long. To them, ordering interpreters to work without masks suggests that some top U.S. officials are taking an unrealistically rosy view of the security situation in Baghdad, which remains a dangerous city.

U.S. military officials said they began to enforce the mask ban in September because security in Baghdad has improved dramatically.

"We are a professional Army and professional units don't conceal their identity by wearing masks," Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a spokesman for the U.S. military, wrote in an e-mail.

Since I had the pleasure of working on a staff in Iraq for a year, allow me to shed some light on how these policies are born.

  • A Flag Officer mentions at a staff meeting that Iraqis working with the coalition "need to look more professional"
  • Colonel sits his cell down and says "Team, the general wants our Iraqi troopers looking better, we need a 'Way Ahead'"
  • Lt. Colonel or a motivated Major comes up with a "Great Idea" to unmask terps without thinking about the consequences
  • Disgruntled Majors and Disheveled Captains/LTs (that's me) forced to make 10-slide powerpoint highlighting "The Way Ahead" for "A newly aligned Professionalism"
  • General sees powerpoint and congratulates Colonel and his team for their contributions to the war effort at the next weekly staff meeting

So the big question is who is to blame? Is it the General for upholding professional standards, the Colonel for trying to get things done, the Junior Officers for doing what they are told? No, it's the goddamn Good Idea Fairy's fault! Luckily, someone at the O-5/O-6 level can cut down ideas like this by saying "Seriously, this is the dumbest thing I've ever heard", but that process seems to have failed in this case. I'm sure there is some parallel in the corporate world.

Usually good idea fairies are confined to dreaming up costly schemes like the Baghdad Pool Plan, which have marginal effectiveness in winning the war. But it is truly disturbing that one could potentially be harmful to our greatest allies.

More Bob on the Fobs available here