The Pentagon’s Foreign-Language Frustrations

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Pentagon's foreign-language school Tuesday / DoD photo by Jacob N. Bailey

As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told 2,500 troops Tuesday about the foreign-language skills he championed as a congressman, an active-duty Army officer was complaining about the paucity of military personnel who can speak anything other than English.

The current push to train soldiers to speak the local languages in Afghanistan and Iraq was “haphazardly thrown together,” Morgan Smiley, an active-duty Army officer, posted on Small Wars Journal, an independent website, Tuesday morning. A recent government report makes clear that – a decade into the war in Afghanistan – the Pentagon continues to bumble teaching its troops the local languages, a skill that ground commanders say is as valuable as a soldier’s skill with a rifle. Several hours later, defense chief Panetta praised the Pentagon’s efforts to improve the language skills in its arsenal, but conceded “frankly, more needs to be done.”

“Learning the language will not only help one learn about that culture but be able to operate more effectively once immersed in it,” writes Smiley, who now serves in Saudi Arabia, and has been a military adviser to both Afghan and Saudi security forces. “Improving our language skills may lead to more effective and efficient techniques for building the capacity of our current and future partners and reduce the need for deployments of robust US forces.”

That may be doubtful: generals always want more. But there is no doubting the lack of language and cultural awareness among the troops we send to win the hearts and minds of Afghans (most of whom speak Dari and Pashto) and Iraqis (Arabic), usually through interpreters. If that weren’t bad enough – we can’t be bothered, basically, to learn the tongue of the societies we are trying to remake – the U.S. military and its leaders remain culturally tone deaf. It happened in Vietnam then, and it’s happening in Afghanistan now.

Smiley detailed ways he believes the language skills of U.S. troops could be improved to help ease such problems. They range from temporarily stationing troops in ethnic enclaves inside the U.S. – among the Arabs of Dearborn, Mich., and the Somalis of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, for example – to having the Pentagon foot the bill for increased training at universities with good foreign-language departments. “In order to ameliorate any ill-will among certain faculty members, we would have to emphasize the (generally) non-combat purpose behind such instruction,” he said. “…i.e. learning the local language will help reduce misunderstanding, generate a positive relationship, and help us assist in reducing or extinguishing violence and conflict in those areas.”

Back in his old congressional district in Monterey, Calif., Panetta spoke at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center before troops massed on Soldier Field overlooking Monterey Bay. The language and cultural training they are receiving there, he told them, is key to U.S. global economic and security interests. “Languages are the key to understanding that world,” Panetta said. “If we are going to advance stability in some of the countries we are fighting in today, we have to be able to understand what motivates those countries, what motivates their people, and to understand their culture, beliefs, faiths, ideologies, hatreds and loves,” he said. “A strong language ability” is necessary to do that.

While a member of Congress, Panetta served on a panel during the Carter Administration that concluded the dearth of language training was what he termed a “national scandal” that led to the creation of the school at Monterey.

Language training: the Pentagon keeps trying to get it correcte / GAO

But despite the school, more needs to be done. “DOD does not have the tools it needs to set strategic direction for language and culture training efforts,” the Government Accountability Office said in a May report. The Army currently orders all troops headed to Afghanistan and Iraq to take “a 4-to-6-hour online training program for language and culture,” while Marines conduct two-day courses for their forces headed to Afghanistan. “Army and Marine Corps officials noted that training requirements changed constantly and this led to some confusion in developing training programs as well as considerable time and resources that were spent adjusting training,” the GAO said.

The Army’s modest standard is for one leader per platoon (a unit of two to three dozen troops) to have “memorized proficiency” in the local language, with a goal of “elementary proficiency,” the agency found. That’s just not adequate, according to the GAO: “On the basis of their operational experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, ground commanders have expressed the importance of language and culture skills for general purpose forces in counterinsurgency and stability operations, stressing, for example, that language training is as important as marksmanship.”