Language Training in Counterinsurgency: Is it Enough?

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 2 months ago

My son was involved in robust kinetic operations in Fallujah in 2007, but that isn’t the sum total of counterinsurgency.  He was also involved in heavy contact with the population, including aggressive policing.  Policing involves language, and while the Marine Corps included fundamental (phonetics based) language training over the course of the pre-deployment workup, I always lamented the fact that it wasn’t enough.  He had to learn Arabic by immersion.

The entire 101st Airborne Division is soon to deploy to Afghanistan, marking the first time an entire Army division has deployed to Operation Enduring Freedom within one year.  Also interestingly, language training is part of the workup.

He that converses not, knows nothing. The soldiers of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), understand that well as they plan to converse time and again with the Afghan people as they continue to ready themselves for their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.

The Strike Brigade currently has 300 of its soldiers involved in language training courses teaching the basics in Afghanistan’s two national languages, Dari and Pashto. With the goal of breaking the communication barriers when deployed, the 2nd BCT realizes the importance of interaction among soldier and local nationals.

“The Strike Brigade has initiated a language training program based on General [Stanley] McChrystal’s Counter Insurgency Training Guidance,” said Maj. Basel Mixon, the brigade’s intelligence officer. “We provide actual and relevant information to soldiers so they can have a better understanding on the battlefield and are better able to interact with the people in Afghanistan on more pro-active terms.”

McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, directed there to be at least one soldier in each platoon deployed to Afghanistan with the capabilities of speaking the basics of Dari, which in turn means units will be able to articulate and understand conversations involving initial contact discussions, introductions and greetings, questions and answers to go along with other forms of simple dialogue.

These perishable skills have more than just a purpose of interacting with the local Afghan people, but the Afghan military as well.

“Dari is also the professional language of Afghanistan and the soldiers in the Afghan military all speak Dari,” said Mixon. “So for the soldiers partnering with Afghan soldiers, Dari would be the language predominately used. For soldiers who go to the tea shop or into the bazaar, they’ll hear Pashto, but most Afghans understand Dari.”

But one problem is that the language training that the 2nd BCT is going through last two weeks.  Much more is needed.  I am a proponent of conventional training, i.e., combined arms, company level maneuver warfare, squad rushes, room clearing, fast roping and rapid insertion (yes, including for GPF, not just for SOF), heavy emphasis on the range and weapons technology, and so forth.  Such an approach makes us better in both conventional and irregular warfare.

But where we have badly fallen behind is language training.  We (the counterinsurgency community) argue incessantly about what training differences should obtain for the operations in which we are currently engaged, but arguing aside, there is one simple truth.  If you speak their language, you can communicate with them.  Nothing can increase the effectiveness of the campaign better than being able to communicate.  The sad fact of the training for the 2nd BCT is that the training only last two weeks.  This simply isn’t enough.


Lessons in Counterinsurgency

Lousy Excuses Against Language Training in Counterinsurgency

The Enemy of My Enemy

  • jbrookins

    This really a tough one. The SOF Communities has been struggling with this for a long time.

    I doubt you can get much from two weeks. It takes about one year of intese training to speak a language (DLI). While the SOF communities 4 -6 months courses aren’t bad for getting the basics down it often takes years after that with continued training in between deployments and schools to speak the language if one ever does.

    Language skills are huge. Yet we still lack a serious program to train soldiers. The Defense Language Insitute only has so many slots, mostly going to Intelligence or linquistic MOSs.

    Commanders don’t feel they can lose a soldier for a year to train even if there were slots.

    Also note: I have yet to meet anyone who has learned to speak a language from software (Rosseta Stone). I’m sure their out there but I’ve never met them. There are great tools out there but they are not the total answer either.

  • Ryan

    If 2 weeks isn’t nearly enough, then 1st BDE 101st isn’t on the chart. We’ve been issued pocket references with various vocabulary and phrases broken down phonetically. There was a half-hearted attempt at a “30 Key Phrases” program, but it was never enforced by higher. I see no issue with fitting a professional language program in the training schedule. I can’t speak for the division on this, but 1st BDE has been aware of their deployment schedule and target area for well over a year. How hard would it have been to outsource tutors on a weekly basis? It pains me; this would’ve been a simple process, but we’re too wrapped up in linear, scripted company-level training lanes. I know we were in the field a mere fraction of the time that the unit trained when I was a private, lo these many (6) years ago. The time is available for language training. The will, however, is not. You can argue that the assets are better spent on SOF forces, but what are all us infantry battalions doing these days? COIN and FID aren’t very dissimilar. The NCOs are smarter, the soldiers are smarter. The training continues to disappoint.

You are currently reading "Language Training in Counterinsurgency: Is it Enough?", entry #4925 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Language in COIN and was published May 2nd, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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