Stephen M. Walt

Lost in translation?

The Obama administration has said that a purely military victory is not possible in Afghanistan, and promised to devote greater attention to civilian “nation-building.” Journalist/historian Gareth Porter questions the feasibility of this approach, pointing out that the United States lacks anywhere near the number of Pashto speakers that such a strategy would require. I’l let ...

By , the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.
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The Obama administration has said that a purely military victory is not possible in Afghanistan, and promised to devote greater attention to civilian “nation-building.” Journalist/historian Gareth Porter questions the feasibility of this approach, pointing out that the United States lacks anywhere near the number of Pashto speakers that such a strategy would require. I’l let him take it from here:

Pashtuns who represent about 42 percent of the population of Afghanistan. It is in the Pashtun southern and eastern regions of the country that the complex insurgency that has come to be called the Taliban has been able to organise and often effectively govern at the village level in recent years.

‘If all you are going to do is kill the bad guys, then you don’t need a lot of Pashto speakers,’ said Larry Goodson of the Department of National Security and Strategy at the National War College, who was a member of the team assembled by CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus to formulate a proposal for Afghanistan and Pakistan. But an effort to win over Pashto-speaking Afghans cannot succeed without officials who can communicate effectively in Pashto.

According to Chris Mason, who was a member of the Interagency Group on Afghanistan from early 2002 until September 2005, the Pashtuns of southern Afghanistan are ‘proto-insurgents,’ meaning that they are ‘naturally averse to the imposition of external order.’

The United States needs ‘thousands’ of Pashto speakers to have any chance of success in winning them over, said Mason, recalling that 5,000 U.S. officials had learned Vietnamese by the end of the Vietnam War. ‘The Foreign Service Institute should be turning out 200 to 300 Pashto speakers a year,’ he said.

But according to an official at the State Department’s Bureau of Human Resources, the United States has turned out a total of only 18 Foreign Service officers who can speak Pashto, and only two of them are now serving in Afghanistan –- both apparently in Kabul.

The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California trains roughly 30 to 40 military personnel in Pashto each year, according to media relations officer Brian Lamar, most of whom are enlisted men in military intelligence.

That indicates that there are very few U.S. nationals capable of working with local Pashtuns on development and political problems. The National War College’s Goodson said the almost complete absence of Pashto-speaking U.S. officials in Afghanistan ‘belies the U.S. commitment to a nation-building and counter-insurgency approach.'”

Uh-oh.

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.