Persistent 'Foreign Language Gap' Compromises Diplomatic Efforts in Afghanistan, GAO Report Says

By Karen Schuberg | September 28, 2009 | 9:55 PM EDT

Afghan-American translator Waheed Kazenpoor, of California, translates for U.S. forces as they speak with a local villager, during a joint Afghan-U.S. patrol. (AP photo)

( – While President Barack Obama is pondering whether to heed the request of Gen. Stanley McChrystal to reinforce the U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, the Government Accountability Office has pointed to another U.S. deficit: Seventy-three percent of State Department officials assigned to the country do not have proficiency in local languages.  

Currently, the State Department lists 45 positions in Afghanistan as "language-designated positions" that are supposed to be filled by people with reading and speaking proficiency in a native language.

Only 12 of those positions are filled with people who have the requisite proficiency, according to the GAO. The other 33 positions are filled by people who do not have the requisite language proficiency.
Without understanding the native languages, "they’re not going to be able to fulfill their mission as effectively. And we point that out in the report,” said GAO analyst Jess Ford, who wrote the report.
The GAO referred to a 2006 report by the State Department's inspector general, which indicated that the lack of language proficiency on the part of the State Department personnel in Afghanistan made it difficult for those personnel to maintain relationships with Afghans.

"In Afghanistan," said GAO, "State’s Inspector General reported that less than one-third of political and economic officers were proficient in a national language, which has led to difficulties in establishing and maintaining relationships with Afghan contacts"

The State Department’s foreign language “deficits” are long-standing – and they go beyond Afghanistan. In Iraq, the GAO report said, 8 of 14 officers (57 percent) lack sufficient language skills. 

“A common element of these problems has been a longstanding staffing and experience deficit, which has both contributed to the gaps at hardship posts and fueled the language shortfall by limiting the number of staff available for language training,” the report stated.

Currently, the State Department relies heavily on interpreters or locally-hired staff to translate in Afghanistan, Ford noted. “But there may be cases when they should have that capability themselves in order to effectively influence somebody,” he said.

That means positions are either left vacant while staff are in language training, or someone unskilled in the language is placed in the post.

“That’s why in many cases, the State Department has made a decision, ‘We’d rather have the position filled with somebody than leave it vacant while they’re getting language training,” Ford said.

State Department press officer Fred Lash told that finding language-proficient employees “has probably been a problem for years” because many of the positions are in spots that “are difficult to fill--they’re hazardous and they’re at hardship posts, things like that.”

The GAO report said the State Department has undertaken several initiatives to address these shortages,
including hiring more people.

“The State Department believes that if they can get more people, they won’t have as much problem with this training issue where they have to make a trade-off decision about filling the position versus somebody for training. If they get enough bodies, they can send their people to training and then these language gaps should begin to close,” Ford said.

But the initiatives have not been undertaken “in a comprehensive and strategic manner,” the report noted.

“As a result, it is unclear when the staffing and skill gaps that put diplomatic readiness at risk will close,” it concluded.

The GAO report calls upon State to undertake some new initiatives to help address the shortages and gaps. It suggests that the State Department set up more schools to enable Foreign Service officers to be able to train in Afghan languages. 

“I believe the State Department will probably take that upon itself to start working on that situation to try to rectify it,” Lash explained.

“That’s probably what will happen,” Lash said. “There will probably be language training offered to more people in foreign services.” 

Lash said there are fewer classes offered in Afghan languages as compared to more commonly-studied languages such as Spanish, German, and French, in part because people generally are not as interested in studying them.

When asked about potential difficulties in conducting diplomatic negotiations given the dearth of language-proficient dipolmatc personnel, Lash said the State Department has been training some military personnel in language and cultural sensitivity.
“We have a military unit somewhere (that) has been undergoing cultural and language training but there’s just not as much of it. There needs to be more of that, too,” Lash said.

“Along the public diplomacy line we’re kind of far behind largely because of staffing and budget, but I think there are people that are working on bringing us up to par,” Lash said.
The U.S. military, faced with its own need for personnel on the ground that speak the necessary languages, seems to have fared a little better than the State Department, according to Lt. Col. Mark Wright, a spokesman for the public affairs office for the Secretary of Defense.
“We do actively recruit Afghan Americans and Pashto and Dari speakers for work as translators and role players for our training facilities within the U.S. for our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines…to get a sense of the language and cultural nuances,” Wright said.
Though he could not provide a statistic, Wright said many Afghan Americans have been recruited as translators to aid in communication and strategic plans in dealing with the Afghan people.
“I know there’s been a lot of work done, and we’ve recruited many people knowledgeable of Afghan culture and language . . . We certainly have had success in gathering folks for translating and other services,” Wright said.

The GAO, meanwhile, recommends that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton develop a comprehensive strategic plan to meet its foreign language requirements.