Archive for the 'Language in COIN' Category

Improved Marine Corps Language Training

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 5 months ago

From Marine Corps Times:

Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C. and Camp Pendleton, Calif., now have the option of pursuing intermediate and advanced language study before deploying to Afghanistan.

The bases recently added two new courses in Pashto and Dari which are Afghanistan’s main languages. The new courses were added in answer to demand from operational forces, most now working to tame Helmand province in the country’s south.

The basic language course is unchanged. Marines will still complete about 40 hours of live instruction and 100 hours of computer-based self-study which will help them master about 50 words and phrases.

But motivated Marines who have a knack for languages can now boost their communication skills with intermediate and advanced options.

The intermediate course will emphasize two-way communication teaching Marines how to ask questions and interpret basic answers. This will help them gather intelligence by understanding descriptions of colors, clothing and vehicles; and how to discuss locations and directions. Through intermediate study, Marines will learn about 200 words and phrases. The whole evolution takes about 80 hours of live instruction and 72 hours of self-study.

The advanced course will help Marines expand their vocabulary to 600 words and phrases through 160 hours of live instruction and 72 hours of self study. By the courses end, they should be able to communicate mission-specific information.

The classes aren’t designed to make marines fluent, but they will provide them with the ability to interact with village elders, farmers or children with a better understanding of their culture and more words and phrases to work with, said George Dallas, director of the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

The courses, detailed in Marine administrative message 652/10, will be available through 2014. Participation is at a unit commander’s discretion.

If I was commanding officer it would certainly be my “discretion” to have as many Marines trained as deeply as possible in the indigenous language before deployment.

While I have derided the many civil affairs projects implemented with no security, thus wasting time and money, and while I have certainly been a proponent of force projection in all phases of a counterinsurgency campaign, this is one area where I have focused my advocacy.  I can’t think of a greater skill to take to Afghanistan than an understanding of the language.  Language training is right up there in importance beside skill in weapon use, fire and maneuver tactics and having good logistics.  After all, we are trying to find and kill an enemy who hides among the indigenous population.

This is a good development.  More is needed.

Language Training in Counterinsurgency: Is it Enough?

BY Herschel Smith
14 years 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

Language and Interpreters in War and Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 8 months ago

Joshua Foust has a good commentary at The New York Times concerning interpreters in counterinsurgency.

IN counterinsurgency, the most important thing is winning over the local population. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander in charge of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, was right to warn that a “crisis of confidence among Afghans” imperils the effort to rebuild the country. For most American troops, however, the only connection they have to the locals — whether soldiers in the Afghan army or villagers they’re trying to secure — is through their interpreters.

United States Army doctrine describes interpreters as “vital,” which is fairly obvious given the bevy of languages spoken in Afghanistan: Dari, Pashto, Tajik, Uzbek and others. Yet the way the military uses translators is too often haphazard and sometimes dangerously negligent. Many units consider interpreters to be necessary evils, and even those who are Americans of Afghan descent are often scorned or mistreated for being too obviously “different.”

Mission Essential Personnel, the primary contractor providing interpreters in Afghanistan, has basic guidelines: interpreters need to be given a place to sleep, for example, and fed. But beyond that, how they are treated is often left up to the individual unit. Many times, they are treated the way they should be: as vital members of a team. Sometimes, however, they are shockingly disrespected.

Earlier this year, I traveled through central Afghanistan as a civilian member of an American Provincial Reconstruction Team. We had a translator — we called her Brooklyn — who had been born and raised in California. During the initial briefing before our convoy set out, however, the team’s commander, an Air Force colonel, demanded that Brooklyn leave the briefing area, referring to her as “that local woman.”

The briefing slides were marked “SECRET,” which caused the colonel understandable alarm. Brooklyn, however, had a security clearance allowing her to be present. Perhaps the real problem was that she wore a headscarf, as one would expect a pious Muslim woman to do.

The next day, as we were driving between two bases, we ran into a traffic snarl at a bridge, with dozens of Afghan soldiers and police officers milling about. Our colonel, who had left his own translator back at his base, got out of his Humvee and asked Brooklyn to begin translating for him. After discussing the issue with the Afghan forces, she explained that they had found several bombs underneath the bridge, and were waiting for an American bomb disposal team to arrive. They had likely saved our lives, but we got that message only because we had an interpreter, the one the colonel had treated like an enemy spy the night before.

“Your interpreter is way more important than your weapon,” Cory Schulz, an Army major who led a tactical team embedded with Afghan troops in Paktika Province, told me. With an interpreter, he explained, you can command hundreds of Afghan soldiers; with a gun, you can only defend yourself.

Interpreters do more than talk and listen. Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, United States troops receive only minimal cultural training before they deploy. Thus interpreters often serve as cultural advisors — helping Americans learn the nuances of typical Afghan behavior.

Major Schulz said of his “terp,” as they’re often called, “he saved my life more than once.” Once the interpreter helped his unit identify a suicide bomber in a large crowd before the man could activate the explosives in his vest. The would-be bomber was acting nervously in a way that Afghans could recognize but that Americans were oblivious to, and the translator picked up on it.

American troops in some isolated parts of Afghanistan have little hope of such guidance. In March I met some officers at Bagram Air Force Base, north of Kabul, who were trying to find an interpreter who spoke Pashai; the Pashai represent only about 1 percent of Afghanistan’s population, but live in some of the most violent and insurgency-ridden areas of the country’s northeast.

Mission Essential Personnel couldn’t supply anyone who spoke the language, the officers told me, yet they felt that being able to speak to the Pashai could prove important for the war effort. So they went to the camp on the outskirts of Bagram where many interpreters live and found one who could speak the rare language. (Later I was told that he had been assigned to a battalion in Khost, 100 miles south of any Pashai-speaking areas, because he also spoke Pashto.)

American officers and enlisted soldiers repeatedly told me how vital interpreters are. Yet there remains no standardized way for units to use them, which can lead to insulting incidents like the one Brooklyn had to endure.

Often, the insults are more subtle, but more personal. In Khost Province, I met an interpreter named Afzal, who worked for a team of Army civilians doing economic and cultural research. Afzal had helped this team for several years, through three rotations of leadership and personnel. He had been trying for a long time to get a visa from the State Department to come to the United States, something many interpreters hope for because of threats to their families. Eventually, extremists began posting threatening letters on his door overnight.

Afzal told me that two years earlier, the team’s leader, a lieutenant colonel, had promised to submit the paperwork for the visa and vouch for his status as an interpreter, but he apparently never did. The next team leader, another officer, made the same promise, but also apparently never followed through. It was not until the arrival of the third team leader, a civilian, early this year that Afzal was able to submit his application. The delay has complicated the procedure — for this year the State Department cut the number of available visas for interpreters from Afghanistan and Iraq to 50 from 500.

As for winning the local population being the most important thing in counterinsurgency (or its center of gravity), I advocate the idea of lines of effort such that killing the insurgents is also similarly important.  But Joshua has it exactly right concerning the need for language training and good, reliable interpreters – interpreters who are paid and treated well.

This idea of dumb rules and interpreters not being allowed in the states is as old as the campaign in Iraq.  There is a robust discussion at the Small Wars Journal concerning whether this is a typical malady or an atypical occurrence.  I cannot provide any further guidance or detail concerning the frequency of problems.  I can say that in the campaign for Anbar, Iraq, interpreters for the Marines were considered Marines themselves.  That’s how well respected they were and how necessary their skills to the campaign.


Lessons in COIN

Lousy Excuses Against Language Training for Counterinsurgency

The Enemy of My Enemy

Interpreters, Language and Counterinsurgency

Lessons in Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 10 months ago

It’s a hateful thing to have to learn lessons the hard way more than once.  From Iraq we have learned many hard lessons, including but not limited to: (1) there must be enough forces to avoid “whack-a-mole” counterinsurgency, with insurgents slipping out of the pressure points and finding safe haven elsewhere, (2) learning the indigenous language is a force multiplier.  The Captain’s Journal is incorrigibly an advocate of the large footprint model and an opponent of the small force projection model for counterinsurgency – and it forever will be that way.

From Afghanistan comes a report that confirms the idea that we (i.e., the current administration) may be learning the lessons of Iraq all over again.

As the US sends more troops to Afghanistan to try to reverse the growing violence, they are relying on the “clear, hold, build” model of counterinsurgency. The US hopes a surge of soldiers will help them clear areas of Taliban insurgents, maintain a lasting presence in those areas to keep militants from returning, and then bring development to attract popular support.

But soldiers in Wardak Province say that the model has been difficult to implement in here. In particular, they say they are caught in a vicious circle: To win over the locals, the troops must bring development, security, and economic prospects. To do this, they have to diminish the presence of the insurgency. But this, in turn, requires that the troops win support of the population.

US forces have already made some progress in the first phase of the strategy. The stretch of the Kabul-Kandahar highway that runs through Wardak, once a magnet for insurgents, has been free of Taliban checkpoints for months. The guerrilla presence along the route had gotten so bad that fuel convoys suffered almost daily attacks …

“How is traffic? Have cars been coming through here and bringing business?” a soldier on a typical patrol asks one merchant, who says business is “OK.”

“Have you seen any bad guys here?” the soldier continues.

“No sir. The bad people stay in the mountains,” the merchant says, pointing to the purple peaks in the distance.

“That’s good. Is there any way we can help you?” the soldier asks.

“Your helicopters fly overhead all night,” the merchant says. “No one in our village can sleep. Please stop this – it is causing major problems.”

The soldier promises to tell his superiors.

Securing the population is good, and relations with the locals must gradually improve.  But if the man has told us where the Taliban are – “the bad people stay in the mountains” – then why aren’t we allocating some troops to go chase them in the mountains?  This isn’t an EITHER-OR option, it’s a BOTH-AND choice.  We especially like it when the enemy separates himself from the population so that we can kill him unimpeded.  Or at least, we should.

Earlier, this vicious circle being discussed is the symptom of too few troops.  Continuing with the report:

Despite such patrols, the troops generally don’t have enough contact with the locals to convince them that they are here for their good, says Habibullah Rafeh, policy analyst with the Kabul Academy of Sciences. Most of the troops live in small, heavily fortified outposts near urban centers. Most Afghans, however, live in rural areas – only 0.5 percent of Wardak’s population is urban, for example.

“The local village people view the Americans as occupiers, not as allies,” Mr. Rafeh says. “Many don’t have direct contact with the Americans, but almost everyone in those areas feel the Taliban presence.”

To meet such challenges, the new commander of US forces in the country, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is pushing for an approach that has troops living among the communities they are meant to protect. Soldiers will live in smaller outposts, embedded amid the local population — a tactic that some credit with helping improve the situation in Iraq.

But some warn that extreme caution is needed for such a strategy to succeed. In a culture that prizes privacy, troops have to be careful not to inflame local sensitivities by their presence, says Dr. Wardak. “The people in my district complained to me after the Americans set up a base near their houses,” she says, “because they were worried that the soldiers will look into their homes or that they will be caught in a crossfire.”

Even when the guerrillas are pushed out of one area, abandoning it to the Americans, they usually reassemble in an adjacent area, US military officials here say. Insurgents have been largely dislodged from Jalrez District, for instance, but some have regrouped in neighboring areas.

In other cases, the US has enough forces to capture only a district center. In Jaghatu District, Taliban forces had run the area as a fiefdom, complete with a court and administrative apparatus. The district government had fled, leaving a cluster of four ramshackle buildings that makes up the capital, called the district “center.”

In mid-May, American forces entered and occupied the district center, displacing the insurgents. They set up a makeshift camp among the devastated buildings – one pockmarked structure, ravaged by frequent mortar fire, is an abandoned school, while another is an empty office. A small contingent of Afghan police and Army took up residence in the other buildings.

Together, this combined force is able to maintain control of the district center, but the Taliban still enjoy sovereignty in the surrounding countryside, according to residents. When an American patrol visits these areas, the insurgents melt into the surroundings, sometimes waiting to ambush the soldiers, other times waiting to fight another day.

Is there any clearer way to say it?  Whack-a-mole counterinsurgency.  We press here, the insurgency expands over there where we have no troops.  We press there, it expands over here.  Also, unrelated to this report but still a salient point, notice how all of the naysayers of increased force projection decry an increase in forces to something on the order of 400,000, or 500,000, or 600,000 – and I have even seen 700,000 troops.  This is the amount, they say, necessary to get the job done.  But this objection is a straw man, and no one is requesting half a million troops.  And not one of the objectors has given compelling reason to believe that 150,000 troops cannot accomplish the mission.  Continuing with the report:

Military officials here say they are still in the process of clearing most areas of insurgents.

“Creating a lasting presence in Sayadabad is going to be hard,” says an American intelligence officer associated with the forces here, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Maybe Jalrez is the only district that we can hold and build by the end of our deployment,” which is scheduled for the end of this year, she says.

In Sayadabad and other areas, fighting is growing more intense as the summer months arrive. “It’s going to get nastier before it gets better,” she says.

Mortar fire regularly hits Sayadabad’s Combat Outpost Carwile, which sits close to Jaghatu District. Improvised explosive devices, such as roadside bombs, go off almost daily on the main highways here. In May, the unit suffered its first losses – a Taliban ambush killed two soldiers as they were on a foot patrol.

Civilians have been feeling the toll of war as well. In the midst of a recent firefight with insurgents, troops mistakenly shot a vehicle full of civilians, killing one and wounding others. Earlier this year, the Taliban abducted two interpreters who worked for the troops. There have also been some demonstrations against the troop presence .

The troops admit there are no easy solutions. In the meantime, some soldiers are finding their own ways to win hearts and minds.

Pfc. Joshua Lipori has decided to learn Pashto, the prevalent language here. While standing on guard duty one day at a combat outpost in Sayadabad, he practices his fledgling Pashto with some passing locals.

“Tsenga Ye?” or “How are you?” he asks. “Jore Ye?” – “Are you doing OK?”

The Afghans stare in wide-eyed astonishment at the foreign soldier speaking their tongue. They whisper to each other in Pashto.

“See,” one says to the other, “there are some good Americans.”

Everyone cannot be trained in language skills.  But after Boot Camp, SOI or MCT, Marines (and Soldiers) can be selected for more advanced language training as a force multiplier.  There is enough time and resources to train in fast roping, squad rushes, room clearing, infantry tactics, and all of the other things infantry needs to know, without starving language.  The only limit to this qualification would be language trainers.  Both the Army and Marines should increase the financial incentive for language qualifications.  It’s that important.


Lousy Excuses Against Language Training for Counterinsurgency

The Enemy of My Enemy

Lousy Excuses Against Language Training for Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
15 years, 3 months ago

Every now and again I pass by a particular report that doesn’t make it to the response stage, but also occasionally, I’ll circle back around and hit it when I have time.  Also of note is that sometimes subjects are timeless.  Language is one of them.

In The Enemy of My Enemy The Captain’s Journal highlighted a great example of what language can do for counterinsurgency.  Make sure to read it (if you haven’t yet) or read it once again (if you have already).  We have been calling for better language training for almost two years.

Without going into the debate over conventional versus COIN that has so plagued the pages of Milblogs lately – The Captain’s Journal wants a balance, with good preparation for conventional ops while at the same time equipping our warriors for the fight they face today – take a short look at this justification for leaving language training just as it is.

“Some of the interpreters aren’t very good,” Petronzio said. “What I am proposing is to identify half a dozen senior interpreters and link them with company commanders.” What about Marines learning Pashto or Dari, the main languages of Afghanistan, rather than relying on contract linguists? “You’d have a hard time doing that. Every year one third of the United States Marine Corps turns over. How are you going to generate a Dari or a Pashto capability? We focus more on the culture than the language.”

The question impales us on the horns of a dilemma.  It isn’t necessary to pose the question as EITHER training Marines in language OR relying on interpreters.  It can be BOTH – AND.  If the interpreters aren’t very good, get better ones.  If the Marines would function better with better language training, then give it to them.  The fact that every year one third of the Corps turns over isn’t a relevant objection, since this same objection can be made about any training (except for the fact that language takes longer).

Since language indeed takes longer, we train to the extent we are capable and simply understand when we don’t create Marines who are fluent within a few years.  While the debate about conventional versus COIN has taken many pages of ink lately, the debate usually focuses on theory.  Seldom does the debate get into the dirt of application and example.

You can’t get your hands any dirtier than with this example.  If we believe that the campaign in Afghanistan is a long one, and we should, then there isn’t any excuse for not embarking on a serious language training program in both the Corps and the Army.

Finally, one more example of how language can help.

“We try our best with our Arabic to speak to them, make them feel comfortable to talk to us, make sure they have a good visit,” said Airman 1st Class Aaron Bahadori, an 887th ESFS member deployed from MacDill AFB, Fla. “It makes them feel comfortable. Yes, I am wearing an American uniform, but I can also speak their language, and they don’t feel they are in a foreign area while visiting. Some of the visitors can speak English. For them to have taken the time to learn English and for us to have taken the time to learn Arabic is mutual respect, so they appreciate it.”

Whether aiding contact with the enemy or engendering mutual respect with the population, the benefits are worth the cost.

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