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Afghan linguist risks life working with U.S. troops

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Published:   |   Updated: May 28, 2013 at 10:18 AM

CHARKUSA, KANDAHAR PROVINCE After a slow trip down a deeply rutted dirt road, the convoy of four huge armored vehicles stops outside a mud-walled compound.

Sweeping the area for improvised explosive devices and keeping a watch for Taliban, the troops walk single-file along the sun-baked mud path leading to the home of police official Haji Rahmatullah.

Most of the men and women wearing the camouflage uniform of the U.S. Army came from thousands of miles away to reach this remote place. But not Naz Khalid.

His journey to Charkusa was shorter in miles but much longer in years.

Khalid, 21, works as a linguist with the Florida-based 7th Special Forces Group, helping the commandos talk with locals. For him, the fight against the Taliban is deeply personal.

“When I was about 8, the Taliban came and kicked my family out of our home,” Khalid says later in front of a campfire at the 7th Special Forces Group compound. “They burned the houses and even cut the trees. We were forced to move to a refugee camp.”

As the group captain talks with Rahmatullah, who is Afghan Local Police checkpoint commander in the area, Khalid speaks with others around him, some who are local police, others who want to be.

The visit is part of a program to teach Afghans how to defend themselves, now and after U.S. forces leave Afghanistan.

Like most Afghan men his age, Khalid has known a life of war, as a child living in a refugee camp and now working with the military.

“We lived in tents for three years,” Khalid says. “There were food shortages. We were cold. We went hungry. We didn't have any light at all.”

Khalid's father, Zabet, took up the fight against the Taliban, joining the Northern Alliance, where he was wounded in the leg by shrapnel during a battle. After the Taliban were defeated, the family returned to their home north of Kabul.

“Everything was destroyed,” Khalid says.

Eventually, life for Khalid and his family returned to some level of normalcy, or as close as one can get in Afghanistan. His father, a teacher before the war, opened a small business selling raisins and grapes.

Khalid graduated from high school and was working with his father when he and a friend who was working at a military airfield struck up a conversation two years ago that would change his life.

“One of my buddies did work at Bagram. He told me I should go work for Special Forces as a linguist,” Khalid says.

Fluent in English as well as Pashtu and Dari, the two main local languages, Khalid was hired by a contracting company to serve as a linguist with Lithuanian Special Forces, one of the NATO units here.

“I went on a lot of missions,” he says. “Mounted. Dismounted. And air assaults. I saw people blown up in front of me. I saw people get shot.”

About a year ago, Khalid went to work for the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. Knowing they would be leaving, members of the 82nd suggested Khalid reach out to Special Forces, and he was hired by another contracting company to work with the 7th Special Forces Group, which is based out of Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle.

For now, Khalid is part of a team teaching Afghans how to provide their own security through a special operations forces program called Village Stability Operations.

“I go to villages and talk to people most of the time,” Khalid says. “I also work first aid.”

For now, anyway.

Like many Afghans, Khalid has come to rely on the U.S. military for employment. But after more than 12 years of war, most troops will be coming home by the end of next year. That means fewer employment opportunities for men and women such as Khalid.

It is more than losing the job that concerns Khalid.

Having worked so closely with U.S. troops, Khalid knows he and his family could be in danger once the Americans go home.

“I am worried about my safety,” he says. “Sometimes when I go to the villages, kids and old people stare at me. They say, 'You work for the pigs.'”

Khalid has never been directly threatened, and he and his family have not received the dreaded “night letters” used by the Taliban to intimidate people.

Still, echoing the thoughts of many Afghans, he says it may be time to leave his homeland.

So Khalid is thinking about moving to Virginia. Or California, where a cousin now lives.

“Most of my friends have left Afghanistan and went to Canada,” he says. “I am worried about the future. I won't have a job, and I won't have backup. There won't be as many guns to protect me.”


haltman@tampatrib.com

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