The U.S. Army has been ramping up instruction in the languages of Afghanistan, even as troop levels in the country decrease in preparation for the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2014.
This year, key installations have added several hundred speakers of Pashto and Dari to their ranks, more than doubling the number of soldiers trained in the Afghan languages.
But it’s not just the country’s languages that are foreign to U.S. soldiers — it’s the culture, as well.
On a recent day at Fort Campbell, which straddles the Tennessee and Kentucky state line, smiling men in long shirts and baggy pants spin in circles, following the leader on a small stage. It’s an ancient “attan” dance, and important for soldiers to see, says Ahmad Dauodzai, a native of Afghanistan.
In modern renditions of the dance, rocket launchers are sometimes fired into the air. But, Dauodzai says, soldiers need not be afraid. “It’s not a sign of war or hatred. It’s a sign of love, reconciliation,” he says.
Daoudzai and dozens of other Afghan natives have been hired as trainers for this immersion program, also being offered at Fort Carson in Colorado and at New York’s Fort Drum.
The first few weeks of the course are spent learning the more than 40 letters in Pashto, one of Afghanistan’s two official languages.
U.S. Army Pfc. Timothy Griffin has advanced beyond the basics and is now studying how to connect with Afghan people. The conversation style sounds a lot like that of the American South.
“You’re constantly asking them how they’re doing, how their family’s doing, how their neighbor’s doing, ” Griffin says. “Just anything, [like], ‘How’s your car?’ Ten minutes later, you get to the main point, which is 30 seconds long. That’s a conversation.”
Early in the war, this level of cultural immersion was largely left to the Army’s elite Special Forces, who shouldered the task of training indigenous forces.
But in 2010, the military’s top brass issued a directive that at least one American per platoon should be able to go beyond “hello” and “thank you.”
And as training the Afghan troops has become an important component of the U.S. exit strategy, training Afghan forces — and the cultural understanding that requires — has become the job of 19-year-old privates, as well, says Maj. Gen. James McConville of the 101st Airborne Division.
McConville himself has been learning Dari, the language of Afghan government.
“This will be my second time going back to Afghanistan,” he says. “You start to realize, I would have been much more effective if I understood the language and understood the culture, and maybe some of the things that may offend them that may lead to some situations that are not in the best interest of either of our forces.”
Last month, 12 U.S. troops were killed by forces dressed in Afghan uniform. The Pentagon believes the bloodshed is often a result of personal grievances and what it calls “social difficulties.” Language training is hardly a direct response to the killings, but McConville acknowledges that it may help.
Pfc. Maxwell Murphy says spending so much time with his Afghan instructors is at least a start to helping bridge those tensions. “I’m sure that a lot of my comrades don’t believe that they can trust [the Afghans],” Murphy says. “I mean, I don’t totally believe that I can trust them all the time, too.”
Once he’s deployed, Murphy figures that if a uniformed Afghan does go rogue, he’ll be tipped off before anyone else. U.S. soldiers, he says, aren’t expected to know the language — meaning he may have an edge when Afghans speak with one another in their native language.
“You may pick up them saying things that they don’t think that you’ll know. So hopefully — maybe — we can catch some stuff before something happens,” Murphy says.
Whether potential threats are coming from inside or outside a unit, military commanders are hoping soldiers like Murphy find a way to occasionally use their words instead of their weapons.