WASHINGTON–Last summer, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressed a group of 2,000 people who he located at the critical juncture and “at the heart” of the military’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“You are as important as any other undertaking in the US military right now,” Mullen proclaimed.
This wasn’t a talk of weapon systems or traditional war theory, but one centered on what might be the most undervalued tool in the military’s arsenal – language.
Mullen’s newfound indispensible manpower in an interminable and untraditional war are the students and staff at the Monterey, Calif.-based Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center.
Ten years ago, the DLIFC was solely in the business of training linguists for traditional roles.
“Now, we’ve had to branch out,” said Stephen Payne, DLIFC command historian. “We’ve been helping train troops since 2003.”
A premier institution since 1941 — when Japanese-American Soldiers were first trained to become translators and interpreters in World War II — DLIFLC teaches 24 languages to linguists from all four branches of the military, the U.S. Coast Guard and other Department of Defense agencies.
Due to rapid expansion, the DLIFLC hired over 1,000 new faculty members since 2001. Their budget has more than tripled, from $77 million in 2001 to $275 million this year. The center started offering predeployment training for Dari and Pashto in 2007. Since then, there has been a 500 percent increase in enrollment, with 15,000 service members trained in just 2009.
Most recently, the center partnered with the army to host “Language Training Detachments” to better prepare troops to meet the demands of an increasingly involved war in Afghanistan. Fort Campbell in Kentucky, Fort Carson in Colorado and Fort Drum in New York are the first installations to start the program. DLI hopes to add 14 permanent Language Training Detachments for the General Purpose Force in the next year.
Last weekend, 73 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell graduated from the first 16-week course in Pashto and Dari, the official languages of the South Asian country.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai capped his four-day US trip last month with a visit to the post. The United States already has sent three brigades to Afghanistan and three more are expected to deploy in the coming months, totaling around 20,000 troops.
Sgt. Audreuna Cleveland, the only female in the Dari class, was deployed to Iraq in November 2007 and served there for a year.
“I didn’t know any Arabic and I realized it was almost essential in winning the hearts and minds of the people,” said Cleveland, who will be deployed to Afghanistan in the next few months.
This time around, with a basic level of conversational language skills in her arsenal, Cleveland hopes the operation in Afghanistan will be different.
“If I at least know the language and culture, I’ll be able to establish relationships with the Afghan people.”
Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s call last November for more soldiers on the ground with language capabilities under the “Campaign Continuity” initiative is expected to enhance the Army’s ability to partner with Afghan National Security Forces and local Afghan communities.
McChrystal, who commands all Afghanistan war operations, says his goal is to have one leader in every platoon who will interact with the Afghan population. We’re talking more than “hello’s” and “thank yous.” The concept calls for building rapport with Afghan nationals by engaging them in meaningful conversations.
“We didn’t take this approach in the first years of the present conflicts,” said Payne. “We went in with the idea we’d overthrow the governments and ‘Gee, it would be great.’ We had no training going in, and when the next phase hit, we weren’t prepared.”
Col. Danial D. Pick, the commandant for DLI, said McChrystal’s directive has ushered in a much-needed sea change.
“This might be the most systematic and intense language training provided to army units,” said Pick, “and it’s necessary in winning the war in Afghanistan.”
But complex is always the keyword in a conversation on Afghanistan.
The country’s terrain is as varied as its ethno-linguistic populations, with more languages and dialects than in Iraq.
Pick notes Dari and Pashto only truly came on the linguistic radar after 9/11 and sustaining access to high quality translators and interpreters has been more tenuous – both in America and in Afghanistan — than in previous wars.
And with a fabled history of invaders stretching back to Alexander the Great, Afghans are traditionally suspect of foreigners.
“We’re still trying to figure out the best ways to tap human capital in Afghanistan,” said Pick.
The linguistic development of troops isn’t a skill that can be taught overnight.
“Commanders have to give us a valuable resource – time,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brian Lamar, the school’s spokesman. “And sometimes that’s difficult when you only have six months of training before deployment and you have Joe Private who doesn’t really know much about Afghanistan.”
A soldier in a war like Afghanistan that once seemed like a cakewalk, doesn’t just dodge bullets. He or she attends Shuras and talks to village elders about governance, economics, and security.
And when dealing with counterinsurgency doctrine under McChrystal’s direction, no training is more crucial to the military than education in critical languages and cultures.
“Just to be able to watch the Afghan news and know what people are saying means a lot to them,” said Army Captain Victor R. Vera, who’s enrolled in the Dari class at Fort Campbell.
The Department of Defense recently created a program, AFPAK HANDS, through which mid- and senior- level officers attend language training, usually in DC, for four months prior to deployment to Afghanistan. The focus is on building a base of officers with language skills to work on Afghanistan and Pakistan issues, alternating between assignments overseas and in the US.
“Bottom line is we need to learn lessons from the past and soldiers need to realize they’re going into a completely different cultural situation where they need to be equipped,” said Pick. “They’re not in Iowa anymore.”
Staff Sgt. Genevieve Chase, who served in combat operations in Afghanistan in 2006, said she would have benefitted from more pre-deployment familiarization programs and language training.
“This is a war very much about relationships,” said Chase, who often went outside the wire and worked with tribal elders.
“We’re never going to win if we don’t even know how talk to the people.”