THE unsung, unarmed, outsourced heroes of Australia's war in Afghanistan - young Afghan interpreters - face an uncertain fate as foreign troops prepare to leave.
At least three civilian interpreters have have been killed while serving with Australian troops. All are risking their lives for as little as $US700 a month.
Now, as foreign forces begin withdrawing, they face a heightened risk of retaliation for what the Taliban regards as their collaboration with foreign ''infidels''.
While some of Australia's allies have created special migration schemes for their Afghan interpreters, the federal government has yet to decide on the fate of hundreds of men and their families.
The future of the interpreters is ''part of a range of matters that are under active consideration as part of transition planning by the Australian government'', a spokeswoman for Defence Minister Stephen Smith said.
Former interpreters say that, as well as the risk they faced while patrolling with Australian troops, they lived with Taliban threats against them and their families. In the field, interpreters usually mask their faces to hide their identity. But they fear being questioned or followed by Taliban ''spies'' when they travel back to their families on leave or at the end of their contracts.
''They will put my family in danger or will kidnap a member of my family because I am with ISAF,'' one said, referring to the International Security Assistance Force, which includes Australian troops.
While the federal government deliberates, interpreters seeking visas have to travel to Pakistan, as Australia does not process visa applications in Afghanistan.
The Department of Defence refuses to say how many interpreters are involved, but it is potentially hundreds. In 2008, Australia gave visas to 557 Iraqis when the Australian Defence Force pulled out of Iraq.
Afghan interpreters - known as ''terps'' to the troops - are hired by private contracting companies, under a $22.4 million Australian budget allocation for interpreters.
The department refers all questions on the interpreters employment conditions to the contracting companies - the US firm WorldWide Language Resources Inc, and Serco Australia Pty Ltd.
The US company's vice-president of operations, Gene Battistini, refused to comment. Serco said: ''We are committed to treating all staff in a fair and equitable way, and rewarding them appropriately.'' Afghan interpreters have told The Sunday Age they earn $US700 a month - far less, they say, than what Australia pays contracting companies. US citizens working as interpreters in the war zone are offered packages of about $US200,000 a year.
Among other details the Department of Defence refuses to reveal on the grounds of commercial confidentiality are payments to Afghan interpreters or their families in the event of disability or death.
A Defence Department spokesman is also unable to say how many interpreters have been killed or wounded while assisting Australian forces, although he said such casualties are all recorded in ADF press releases. Over the past five years, ADF releases refer to three interpreters being killed in conflict, and 10 interpreters and contractors being wounded with Australian troops. But this tally does not appear to be complete.
Media releases in September 2008 did not mention an Afghan interpreter severely wounded in a battle alongside nine special forces soldiers. Corporal Mark Donaldson was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions in that battle, including rescuing the injured interpreter.
The work of interpreters is widely regarded as the riskiest job in Afghanistan. A spokeswoman for ISAF in Kabul told The Sunday Age that this year alone, 10 interpreters had been killed.
Deciding which interpreters might be eligible for Australian assistance is complicated by the fact some have worked for various foreign armies. Also, there are several categories of interpreters. The most vulnerable, and poorly paid, are young Afghan men hired by contractors and then assigned to foreign forces. Others are US citizens or citizens of third countries.
The US and Canada have special visa programs for Afghan interpreters. German officials are scrambling to devise a scheme to protect up to 3000 Afghans they have worked with, with some officials predicting ''a horror scenario after the troop draw down''.
Australia's program of outsourcing its interpreters is dwarfed by the $US2.3 billion in contracts issued to private companies by the US military for 8000 interpreters.