In a little noticed Internet advertisement, Virginia-based Veritiss, LLC, is promising a $7,000 - $12,000 signing bonus, plus annual salaries of up to $237,000, plus living expenses, for anyone who can translate Pashto (the language of the Taliban) into English. The posting are for Afghanistan, and Qatar, where Veritiss is apparently under contract to the National Security Agency to supply translators for intercepted conversations between the proposed Taliban office in Qatar and Taliban officials in Pakistan.
The advertisement is a symptom of a glaring deficiency in U.S. intelligence planning that has damaged American national security. There exists a massive and stunning lack of language skills within the Defense Department, State Department and CIA/NSA. This is neither new nor are such findings unique to the Kabul Press, which has repeatedly pointed out this strategic flaw over the past three years. A long string of U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) audits and news media investigations over the past three decades have also highlighted this critical problem:
“Americans Foreign Language Gap” Associated Press. December 31, 1980, review of the President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies.
“State Department: Staffing and Foreign Language Shortfalls Persist Despite Initiative to Address Gaps,” Government Accountability Office, August 2006.
“Many in State Dept. Can’t Talk the Talk - Lack of Proficiency in Languages Assailed” by Anushka Asthana of The Washington Post, August 11, 2006.
“Exclusive: GAO report finds State Department language skills dangerously lacking,” Foreign Policy Magazine, September 22, 2009.
“Department of State: Persistent Staffing and Foreign Language Gaps Compromise Diplomatic Readiness,” Government Accountability Office testimony, September 24, 2009.
“Soldiers and diplomats still lack language skills” by Jeff Stein for The Washington Post, June 10, 2010.
“Lack of linguists hampers government’s mission, officials say” by Emily Long for Government Executive.Com on October 18, 2010.
Despite the constant stream of critiques and warnings, little has changed since 1980, with senior officials of both parties in Washington, D.C., willing to give speeches about the magnitude of the crisis, but refusing to show any leadership in solving this ongoing disaster. In the above 1980, AP story, it quoted the Presidential Commission’s conclusions that the State Department was “beset with chronic problems in meeting its foreign language requirements.” The AP reporters interviewed then Congressman Leon Panetta about the Commission’s report. He argued at length that the U.S. military’s language shortfall was a “very real national security need.” If one were to interview Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta today, he would likely say the same things he said 32 years ago (i.e., this is a serious national security problem and it has to be addressed soon).
This reporter served with the U.S. State Department for a short period of time in 2008. It was obvious at the time that the diplomatic bureaucracy (in general) considered the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to be almost a nuisance. The Department had to send a certain number of bodies to each country so they used a special provision in the law (called Section 3161) to hire temporary diplomats to fill many of those slots. The 3161 employees were given almost no cultural or religious training for the countries they were entering and no language training. They were and continue to be deployed into the war zones just so that the State Department can fill its quota and present the appearance of cooperation with the military effort. This reporter questioned State Department officials as to how they could deploy people into the Iraq and Afghan countryside to work with local officials and yet provide them no language and little cultural training. The response was that the 3161 diplomats would be supplied with an interpreter and that was good enough. The idea that Americans can function in a foreign country at the local level, without any cultural or language skills, is folly. The idea that being able to converse with a local Afghan soldier or official through an interpreter is just as effective as speaking to them directly in their own language, is folly. Despite these being obvious follies, this has been the policy for the past decade and America’s war efforts in both countries have faltered as a result.
This past week a group of 20 Afghan members of Parliament held an extraordinary press conference in Kabul in which they urged their countrymen to take up arms against the American invaders. This was in response to the burning of Korans at Bagram Air Base. At the same time, there is an increasing trend in Afghan soldiers turning their weapons on American and NATO trainers. These are clear symptoms of a huge gap that exists between the two cultures, a gap that can only be closed through direct conversation.
In summary, the U.S. Government should not be posting any diplomat, intelligence agent, civil affairs person or military trainer into a conflict country who does not speak the one or more of the local languages. This statement is so basic and so fundamental that it should not have to be placed into a news story.
What Pentagon officials fail to understand is that a skilled military linguist in Afghanistan is worth one hundred skilled riflemen. Until Pentagon, State Department and Langley officials begin to grasp that message, the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and their allies in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere will continue to surge. The Taliban are not winning in Afghanistan, the U.S. is losing and it is doing so through cultural and tactical mistakes and ignorance. What was needed in 1980 and in 2001, and is still needed today is a “Manhattan Project” in languages. This requires a massive effort to have officials, diplomats and operatives learn all the major languages, minority languages and dialects of each country in conflict and of each country that is at risk of becoming in conflict.
Within the State Department there is an effort to have all Foreign Service Officers speak at least one foreign language fluently. One problem is that diplomats tend to choose popular Western languages such as French, Spanish, Italian, German and Russian. This is not helpful. Furthermore, the level of proficiency required is usually low, with fluency being the standard, which is also not acceptable. To function effectively, especially in a conflict country, one must understand and speak as if one were a native. That level of expertise requires a substantial additional effort. Such training programs will not be voluntarily initiated by any U.S. Government department or agency as they prize generalists who can be posted from one country to another. Expertise regarding a specific people or group is bizarrely considered to be either unnecessary or compromising because it somehow results in divided loyalties (the U.S. Government not trusting that its personnel will not switch sides).
One of the debilitating problems for the U.S. intelligence community is that it is its own worst enemy. Much like the Cold War, when CIA counter-intelligence chief James Angleton was reportedly so paralyzed with fear of Soviet moles that he became ineffective, the present CIA suffers from the same paralysis. The disease could be labeled as “bureaucratic paranoia.” The Senior Intelligence Service (SIS) seems so fearful of a Taliban, al-Qaeda, Hezb-allah or Qods force mole, that it has reportedly (after 12 hour-long polygraph tests), rejected scores of crucial linguists who could have helped it turn the tide. The reality is that the CIA should not be terrified of hiring someone who once met a person who was associated with someone who was affiliated with a suspected terrorist. Limiting employees and linguists to those with squeaky-clean, white-bread backgrounds is self-defeating. The SIS bureaucracy seems more concerned with avoiding a mole (and the resulting embarrassment) than in winning the war.
Languages are the soul of a country. One cannot know a country and its people without speaking their language, nor can parties develop the type of bonds needed between allies without being able to speak directly with each other. Every language has unique and interesting components and concepts that are lost in translation. The concepts of hunger and sickness are wonderfully expressed in Urdu. In Spanish, machinery and clocks “walk” rather than “run” as in English, this being a small window into Spanish culture. One cannot grasp the world’s first novel, the “Gilgamesh”epic, without understanding some of its key Akkadian phrases. One cannot truly comprehend the English Bible without understanding at least some Aramaic, which includes understanding the distinctions between the Aramaic spoken by Christ’s followers in Galilee compared to the Aramaic spoken in Judea (Jerusalem).
A final point is that even if one masters a foreign language to the extent that they qualify as a “native-speaker,” such is still not enough. In a country such as India, for example, knowing one of its many languages without understanding such things as the caste structure and the significance of people’s names and the pantheon of religious deities that are important on a daily basis, would be a waste of effort. To function in a foreign country, the deployed official, diplomat or agent must be able to fit seamlessly into that country’s culture.
The Taliban and al-Qaeda do not use interpreters. They do not contract out their language skills. They speak the local languages of all their target countries. It is a lesson that the West must learn and one that it can and must improve on if it is to successfully challenge its radical enemies abroad.