I want YOU to mumble a few words of Pashto

by Asher Kohn on 1/7/2010 · 16 comments

The US Military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, or I suppose someone on that board, came up with a moderate reorganization of the military. The plan is for a corps of experts in Afghanistan and Pakistan to help drive military goals and make sure that their operations won’t blow up in their faces. I really don’t have anything snarky to say about this, it’s a decent plan. But there are issues:

The program — which is expected to create a 912-member corps of mostly officers and enlisted service members who will work on Afghanistan and Pakistan issues for up to five years — was announced with much fanfare last fall. So far, 172 have signed up, and Admiral Mullen has questioned whether all of them are right for such a critical job.

The article gets into the fact that a 5-year commitment in something admittedly experimental is a really dangerous career path. Which it is, of course. If you jumped with both feet into studying Afghanistan in 2001, you would’ve been ignored 2 years later. If you jumped into Iraq in 2003, you’d be passe 4 years later. And now with the Yemen and the Somalia and the 2011 pull-out date, it’s a dubious career move. And not all military folks have the opportunity to be as absurdly narrow-minded as us nerds, I understand that. But all the same, I think the only thing worse than having such small numbers is having the highest-ranking member of the armed forces say that you’re not even worth the program’s while.

“In many cases, the volunteers have been the right people for this very critical program,” Admiral Mullen said in the one-page memo, dated Dec. 14. “However, I am concerned that this is not the case across the board.”

Eeesh. Score one for slow-moving bureaucracy.

But the thing I’m most interested in the training. The article says that “volunteers receive cultural training and 16 weeks of language instruction in Dari, Pashto or Urdu” and if you have tried to learn those languages, 16 weeks ain’t nothing. 16 weeks of Urdu and you’re still wondering whether that’s a “N” or an “L” and saying “Aap kya hal hai?” with a goofy grin on your face. I’d imagine that it would take more to break up the Quetta Shura. And speaking of Quetta, wither Balochi? Poor folks can’t even get a government program to understand their region to fund studying their language.

So USMil is trying to fill up these slots with experts, and yet folks have graduated (including folks like me with exactly 16 weeks of Urdu under my belt, nontheless) and can’t find jobs. Once again, the knowledge and people trying to find it are out there. But trying to find soldiers who you can force into learning really complex customs and languages and sacrifice their careers while they’re at it is going to be difficult. Trying to convince history and linguistics nerds to study what they want: considerably less so. Sometimes, more bureaucracy is not the answer.

And I don’t think Think-Tanks are necessarily the answer, either. Academics and warfare are really a nasty, ugly, mix, I realize that. I just suppose that trying to create a new Central Asia is going to take a lot more than guns, and any military solution should probably realize this.

Unrelatedly, but of more interest to those who come here for Turania and get caught reading about Afghanistan, NewEurasia has a couple of interesting tidbits out. I’m not…quite…on the Twittering bandwagon yet, so I’ll just put ’em here:

  • They are attempting to begin/commence a postcard campaign for Yevgenii Zhovtis. They provide his address and a token message, but I’m sure some of you with a handle on Kazakh could think of something better. Here’s the info.
  • Oh, and the 9th-richest-female in Switzerland? Maybe you’ve heard her duet with Julio Iglesias

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 33 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Asher is currently in law school at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is studying natural resource law in Central Asia and its intersection with different theories of jurisprudence. Besides Registan.net, Asher has written for The Los Angeles Times, Run of Play, İstanbul Altı, and Istanbul Eats. He has worked with the Natural Resource Law Center and the International Crisis Group, where he studied legal and political traction over a variety of issues.

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


David M January 8, 2010 at 12:36 pm

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 01/08/2010 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

JohnB January 8, 2010 at 1:46 pm

If, after 16 weeks, you are saying “Aap kya hal hai?”–you are a very slow learner. The expression is “Kya haal hai, aap ka?” or “kya haal hai, tera?”. If you haven’t mastered basic word order in 16 weeks, you should abandon the pursuit of languages altogether. No soldier will master urdu or pashto or dari in a 16 week course, but a talented soldier will have comfortable command of perhaps 200 phrases and sentences and a vacabulary of 500-1000 words.

Jakob January 8, 2010 at 3:51 pm

>>If, after 16 weeks, you are saying “Aap kya hal hai?”– you are a very slow learner<<… or simply talking the way the common Pakistani actually does. JohnB is right, 16 weeks is just enough for a good start in Urdu. But the point is rather: Will they be able to communicate?

The Pakistanis who actually say “Kya haal hai, aap ka?” will proceed with "So how's life these days in XY", wherever the Marine comes from in the States. Urdu will help shit. Those who don't speak English, are seldom native Urdu speakers. They will understand (and "aur … fit hai?" will do it) but the important thing will be the communication apart from the language. Does the Marine gain trust and respect to get to the Info he wants? Does he know how to behave, what to expect and how to react in tense situations? To have someone around who learned Urdu (Dari, Pashto, Hindko, Balochi, Wakhi, Punjabi, Seraiki …whatever) but has no clue how to deal with a Pathan/Balochi … tribesman is worth less than a sensitive American who needs an interpreter but is respected by the Khan he has chai with.

AJK January 8, 2010 at 2:43 pm

OK OK, mea culpa. It’s been a while since those days, I admit.
But your requirements are a LOT for a language that is very different from English…even, say, Indiana’s programs wouldn’t expect that out of you, and that is full-day classes for graduate students.
I don’t think you can expect that much knowledge from that little time. I don’t think that much knowledge is enough to really get you anywhere but the ground floor. My own innate inadequacies at pursuing language studies behind, you make a tall order, and even it might not be tall enough.

Ian January 8, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Having mastery of 500-1000 words after 16 weeks of classes (let’s assume that’s 5 days times 6 hours times 16 weeks, or 480 contact hours) is pretty damn optimistic. Try a fraction of that.

anan January 8, 2010 at 3:57 pm

“But your requirements are a LOT for a language that is very different from English” No it isn’t. Hindustani/Urdu is an Aryan language and shares many common grammar rules or sentence structure patterns with Latin and the European Romance languages; which are also Aryan languages.

I am continually amazed by the “similarities between South Asian and European languages.

For that matter ancient Avesta/Pharsi is similar to ancient Vedic Sanscrith. Dari/Pashtu/Balochi are all from the same language family as Pharsi, Sanskrit, Urdu/Hindi.

To completely change the topic, there are other ways to get around the language problem for ISAF forces. Teach the ANA and ANP english.

Remember that ISAF/OEF is now embedded inside the ANA from the General Staff Chief of Operations LTG Shir Mohammad Karimi’s Army HQs, to the ANA Corps HQs, to the Brigade HQs.

ISAF/OEF and the ANA share joint headquarters that command all ANA and ISAF/OEF forces.

So far ISAF and NTM-A/CSTC-A have abysmally funded and supported ANA officer and NCO education.

For example, the ANA only allowed 450 freshman to join 4 year academy in January, 2010; because of a funding shortage. Of these 50 are on the medical track. The first class that graduated in January, 2009, only had 84 2nd Lieutenants.

When the Turks [who rock by the way] helped first form the 4 year academy in 2004/2005, the plan was to admit 2 thousand freshman a year at end state. Funding shortages, and the failure of ISAF to assign instructors to the academy; even under President Obama, have lead to this sorry state.

Another travesty is that fact that 2nd Officer school is only 20 weeks long. (This is another track for Afghans to become officers without attending 4 year academy.) The reason it is so short is again:
-funding shortages
-failure of ISAF to assign staff

Since ISAF is embedded inside the ANSF, shares joint co-located HQs, planning, facilities, and missions; since ISAF/OEF fights through the ANSF; ANA education compensates for ISAF’s lack of Pashtu/Dari language skills.

Please don’t get me started on ISAF/OEF’s failure to support ANA NCO education.

The ANP is 4 to 5 years behind the ANA according to the former head of CSTC-A.

AJK January 8, 2010 at 4:07 pm

I haven’t been able to find much of anything on the Turks in Afghanistan, in the American, European, or Turkish press, or in any reports/papers. I’d love to read some, can you link me/e-mail me something?

Also, am I correct that you’re not American or not a product of an American education? I’ve always assumed you were an Afghan, but I have no idea if that’s true. Most Foreign language studies stateside are Spanish or French, with some German or Latin as well. Compared to those, Urdu is completely different.

Oh, and I like Jakob’s point: What is more important, do y’all think: cultural context or language? Or are they inseperable?

anan January 9, 2010 at 12:58 am

Not Afghan. If you want to touch base offline, e-mail Joshua.

The Turks are assuming the lead for RC-Capital or Kabul. They seem to be taking responsibility for advising the 111th Kabul Capital Division (the only Division HQs in the ANA.) Not sure about their contribution to ANP advising.

Turks are also playing a significant role in Wardek, where they run a PRT, train police and probably have OMLTs.

I have seen reports that the Turks are helping train “two divisions” in the ANA. By this I assume is meant 111th Kabul Capital division and 201st ANA Corps in Wardek.

Jakob January 13, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Of course they are in a way inseperable. Certain expressions typical for a language will give you a much better feeling of how to behave with people. But that benefit from the language only comes after a while, just knowing basic vocabulary won’t help that much. From my experience in Punjab, Kashmir and NWFP (and apart from Pak other non-German speaking countries too) I feel that one can also communicate with people without knowing the language and can not-communicate while knowing it.

I know foreigners in Pak who don’t know the language but get what they want from a shopkeeper rather than I do, because I get stuck in conversation and fail to realize that I get ripped off. I know people who came as tourists and immediately gained the trust from our pathan driver, while I had to work my ass of to get respect because I did the wrong things at the wrong time.

I hope you get my point.

anan January 8, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Ian 1/8/2010 at 3:43 pm

Learning Urdu is easy. Force someone to watch 100 hours a week of Bollywood movies.

Its the Pashtun and Dhari that’s hard. Not enough quality programing.

shohmurod January 9, 2010 at 10:49 am

Watch Ariana Afghanistan Television online:

You can also watch Uzbekistan Television online:

Cool, ha!?

Jeremy Kotkin January 8, 2010 at 7:33 pm

Granted, the program has had (and still is having) some growing pains and the far-term vision of our new career paths are in flux, but there seems to be a general misunderstanding of the *initial* language training here…..
The first round of 4-months of full-time language training is just that, a first round. After the initial yr-long deployment of which some time of that will be embedded (immersed) with the Afghans to further our training, follow-up language training will continue upon our return to CONUS for the duration of our time in the program. Dari training won’t stop at “Salam, chtoor asti?” or “man askar astam wa dar Kabul mey konam.” It’ll continue hopefully well past the 1/1 level.
Critiques aside of how much we can get trained up before our first deployment, and how long POTUS said we’d have left there, the Afghan Hands Program and the intent/mission of this new cadre is a sea-state change from the way we’ve been doing business in the AOR previously. We just need the support from the different Services to make it viable.

Sam January 9, 2010 at 10:24 am

The best way to learn a language is immersion. I think the 16-week language course would be effective if the soldiers would be constantly exposed to it. The army needs to start training interpreters or grab some from intelligence agencies and give them a lot of hazard and danger pay.

M Shannon January 10, 2010 at 7:53 am

The problem is the organizational culture of NATO. Canada is a good example.

The Canadian Forces has two under graduate universities (RMC and CMR) both without foreign language departments (perhaps the only universities in Canada to lack such a department). It has no DLI. It does however have a French and/or English language school on every major base- it’s not lack of infrastructure or money that prevents foreign language training- it’s will.

One Canadian soldier may have taught himself to speak Pashtu conversationally but I know of no one who has on gov’t time. Why? Because it’s hard and you’ll only use it for six months, and you’ll have interpreters, and you’d have to decide whose going on tour into what job two years out and why waste money on reservists because what if they decide not to deploy and (and this is most important) if you are a regular raising your French score or getting an online MA will do something for your promotion chances while speaking Pashtu like a native does nothing. Besides if you did learn to speak to Afghans the army, true to form, would probably post you to Iraq.

covan January 10, 2010 at 11:09 am

I had extensive language and cultural training before deploying as an advisor on Vietnamese gunboats back in the day. It is a tonal language where one word such as “ma” can be pronounced 5 different ways to mean 5 different things. I built amazing rapport with my counterparts. Bottom line is if you are motivated, you can learn any language and having your butt on the line is a great motivator.

Capt. Monkey January 12, 2010 at 10:21 am

Keep in mind that the the SFQC uses a 17 week “short” course for languages including French, Spanish, and Indonesian. The “long” course (Persian, Mandarin, Russian, Arabic) is only around 24 weeks. The standards is to be a 1+/1+ on the DLPT (or equivalent on the now used OPI).

I remember once upon a time, while studying Russian–probably during my first immersion experience in Uzbekistan, someone saying it takes approximately 700 contact hours to become truly conversational/fluent in a language. That works out to be about 17.5 weeks, at 8hrs/day and 5days/wk.

It seems that 16 weeks would be sufficient for survival and basic communication, depending on the student. How hard does the student work? What’s his learning style? Does he learn languages easily? If an officer/NCO views this as a chance to “take a knee” and relax for a bit, then they’ll flounder, especially if there’s not quality control standard (for example, failure in the SFQC to meet the standards means that you do not progress forward in the course). If we’re trying to push people through as quickly as possible, it becomes significantly harder to monitor and enforce quality. Nevertheless, in my opinion, it’s possible to learn a significant amount of a language in 16 weeks–but one would have to work hard for it.

Previous post:

Next post: