At Afghan Cup in Virginia, recruiters offer big money for interpreters

Military contractors converged on Virginia's Afghan Cup, the country's largest Afghan sporting event, in search of the few American citizens who speak Pashto and Dari.
By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010

The crowd in Prince William County, gathered for the biggest Afghan sporting event in North America, erupted in a roar in Dari, Pashto and English. But this weekend's Afghan Cup is no mere game.

The soccer pitch in Woodbridge was plastered with ads from companies -- backed by more than $1.3 billion in government contracts -- looking to sign up U.S. citizens to make more than $200,000 a year working as Dari and Pashto interpreters in Afghanistan. One company, SOS International, handed out 500 T-shirts that read, in Pashto: "If you can read this, we might have a job for you." Several teams wore the names and logos of recruiting companies on their uniforms.

The soccer contest that plays out on Northern Virginia fields for three days every July, drawing thousands of Afghan Americans, is full of intense rivalries among 12 teams from immigrant communities in California, New York, New Jersey, Toronto and Virginia. But in the past few years, the tournament has taken on a new role as a fertile field for the government's urgent quest to recruit speakers of Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan's two official languages.

"These are golden, cherished people," said Dave Slovina, vice president of recruiting for Mission Essential Personnel, an Ohio-based contractor that signed up 45 interpreters at the tourney two years ago. "Our job is to make field trips into their communities. We shake hands. We press flesh. We go to their restaurants and stores. We build trust."

That can be a tough task. In the shadow of one recruiter's tent, Nisar Paraza cheered for Ariana, a Fairfax City-based team named after an ancient Afghan empire. But as he watched the game, Paraza quietly tore a recruitment information card into tiny pieces, letting them fall into the dirt. "$200,000 is a lot of money," he said. "But what are you going to do with it if you're dead -- if you get blown up before coming home?"

Deep-pocketed recruiters

With a minuscule pool of U.S. citizens who speak Dari and Pashto, and even fewer willing to return to their war-torn native country, the Afghan Cup has become a recruiting gold mine. The torrent of attention from deep-pocketed recruiters has boosted a tournament once funded largely by kebab restaurants and a local mosque. The finals are played at the massive Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown. And there's a slick concert, thanks in part to the largesse of federal recruiters. Even the $1,000 tab each team pays to play is often picked up by contractors.

"The fact is, we wouldn't be able to have an Afghan Cup without these contractors coming in and sponsoring us," said Omar Bashir, who coaches Ariana.

Mission Essential Personnel, which has received contracts worth more than $1.3 billion from the U.S. Army to recruit Pashto and Dari interpreters, estimates that only 7,760 U.S. citizens speak Pashto. But only 2,250, they estimate, could qualify for a security clearance. Finding those Americans has become one of the most lucrative ventures in the nine-year-old war in Afghanistan. And since the war's expansion, including President Obama's addition of tens of thousands of troops last year, "it's been a full, all-out sprint" to find interpreters, Slovina said.

In 2004, Wahid Panjshiri, a fixture on the bleachers this weekend, put aside his soccer career with Ariana and his job as a cabdriver at Dulles airport to work as an interpreter in the country of his birth.

Recruited by Worldwide Language Resources, Panjshiri was told what most prospective interpreters are told: You'll be with an Army unit, but we don't know what you will do or where you will do it. You will divide your time among U.S. military bases and combat zones.

With so few U.S. citizens willing and able to serve as interpreters, questions have been raised about whether contractors are settling for men who lack the physical capacity for the job. The average age range of Mission Essential recruits is 47 to 65, according to the company. Interpreters are assigned to U.S. Army units and given about three weeks of training on U.S. bases before deploying.

"I've met guys off the planes and have immediately sent them back because they weren't in the proper physical shape," Gunnery Sgt. James Spangler, who is in charge of linguists at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, told the Associated Press last year. "They were too old. They couldn't breathe. They complained about heart problems."

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