Not Enough Pashto Speakers but Pashto is Not Enough

Stephen Walt repeats the popular lament (and specifically Gareth Porter‘s) that the United States Government employs a ridiculously small number of Pashto speakers and that this negatively impacts us in Afghanstan.   Pat Porter agrees but issues some important caveats:

1) Languages are extremely hard to develop at a sufficient level. Except for the most outrageously talented, most folk can study intensively for years and develop the language skills equivalent to a reasonably intelligent ten year old. Brokering deals amongst local leaders and conducting skilled diplomacy presumably demands skills far beyond this;

2) Prime Minister Anthony Eden was one of those outrageously talented people,  who spoke Farsi and Arabic, had a First Class Honours degree from Oxford in Oriental Languages (which was probably even harder than Cinema Appreciation). None of this was enough to prevent his blunder in the Suez invasion of 1956. In other words, there is no substitute for good strategic judgement;

3) Other than foreign mercenaries, most British troops were pretty fluent in the local language against certain mutinous subjects between 1775 and 1783;

4) How do you say ‘we are destroying your opium crop’ in Pashto? If policies are misguided, all the vocabulary and nuanced knowledge in the world may not win over the population.


Beyond that, by the time we get people sufficiently trained in Pashto to be useful, they’ll be able to command far more money outside government — or as government contractors.  Not to mention that, unless we plan to remain for decades, it’s a skill set that with an expiration date in terms of the utility of having legions of them.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Boyd says:

    Before you even get to that point, a more fundamental problem is the government’s unwillingness to commit the resources necessary to achieve language proficiency in the more difficult language for native English speakers.

    While my experience is solely with the US Navy, based on what I’ve seen over the years, the shortcomings I experienced there seem to apply to the federal government as a whole.

    Here’s the issue: the desired fluency cannot be achieved by anyone other than those linguistic superstars you mentioned without spending a great deal of time “living in the language” with native speakers. This is especially difficult with south Asian and Middle Eastern languages. Even though Arabic, as the most severe example, is used in countries extending from Morocco across North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula and Southwest Asia, Arabic in Morocco is significantly different from Arabic in Saudi Arabia.

    Pashto has its own additional difficulties, though. In order to attain true fluency, students of the language are going to need to spend a considerable amount of time in Afghanistan. Finding language-facile folks willing to do that, even in the military, ain’t gonna be easy.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Additionally, in some languages, e.g. Arabic, Chinese, the “dialects” are very diverse, in some cases not mutually intelligible. In the case of Pashto I believe there are something like a dozen dialects, some of which are quite diverse. I have no idea of how diverse.

    John Burgess could, no doubt, comment more authoritatively than I on the subject of Arabic.

    But the idea that we’re going to have people on tap who are Level 5 fluency in every obscure dialect in the world is absurd.

  3. Triumph says:

    Pashto is a crap language born of savagery. Make them either learn English or retreat into their spiderholes and get out of our way.

  4. Bithead says:

    Triumph’s point seems more reasonable than he wants to make it, and in combo with Shculer’s comment, raises a logical question:

    Why is it incumbant upon us to learn the language to the degree called for in James piece, particularly when there are doubtless a number of English speaking… and even western educated people within the Afghan government, already?

  5. James Joyner says:

    Why is it incumbant upon us to learn the language to the degree called for in James piece, particularly when there are doubtless a number of English speaking… and even western educated people within the Afghan government, already?

    The problem is that the Afgan “government” in Kabul doesn’t actually run Afghanistan. Tribal leaders do. And most of ’em don’t speak English.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Unfortunately, they don’t all speak Pashto, either, James. Indeed, more speak Afghan Persian than speak Pashto. There are more than 30 languages spoken in Afghanistan. I return to my earlier point: we’re never going to have speakers with high levels of fluency in every language in the world on the shelf in case of need.

    Isn’t English the closest thing to a lingua franca in Afghanistan?

    The bottom line is that we’re going to need to find a method of relying on native speakers with some command of English rather than rolling our own from English native speakers.

  7. Boyd says:

    Triumph must be channeling one of my former shipmates who said something along the lines of, “The nerve of these people! We come all the way over here to live in their country and defend them from the damn Commies, and they don’t have the common decency to learn our language!”

    It came out surprisingly clear when he said it, considering his tongue was firmly planted deep into his cheek at the time.

  8. An analyst I respect makes the point that we should seek less cultural awareness and more awareness of culture. I wonder if the same concept would work with language study — which I think is essentially used as a surrogate for a more culturally attune approach to pursuing our interests.

  9. steve says:

    Here is a link from a CPT. Carl Thompson on preparing to deploy to Afghanistan.

    The culture there is totally alien for us. We are sometimes contracting Taliban to build for us. Being completely dependent on native interpreters in such a country means just giving away money.

    After finishing my enlisted time in the mid 70’s, I took extra courses in ME history and Islam. It has been pretty clear for a long time, IMHO, that the ME and over to Pakistan has been our future problem area (Latin America closing fast). How could we not have developed an extensive corps of interpreters? You can add armor to a Humvee or build MRAP’s pretty quickly. Interpreters take a bit. We have been there for 7 years. What gives? Protect the population we cant even speak with? Nuts.

    There is a group of service members who have been impressed enough with the importance of our actions in the ME to actually learn Arabic. I have great respect and admiration for those people. We need some people with the same commitment to learn the languages of the areas where we can see we will remain involved. BTW, this does not all need to rely upon DoD. State should be doing the same.


  10. Tlaloc says:

    We spend more on guns than everyone else in the world…

    Doesn’t that mean we can just make them speak ‘Merican?