Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Earless in Gaza

[posted by Callimachus]

You just can't do what we're trying to do in Iraq, like this.

Of the 1,000 U.S. employees at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, only 10 have a working knowledge of Arabic, according to the State Department.

Of course, it's not just the embassy; it's endemic throughout the U.S. military, foreign services, and intelligence agencies. And it's literally killing us. How many have died in attacks that might have been prevented if intercepted information was translated better or faster? How many millions or billions of dollars do we waste trying to recover what is caused by simple errors in comprehension?

It's not new. It goes back to the Cold War, at least. And even then, when the relevant languages tended to be the European ones more familiar to a great many Americans, we had too few people who understood them. Now, when we're tangled in the polyglot world of the Middle East and South Asia, "too few" shrinks to "none":

When then-CIA field agent Robert Baer served in Tajikistan in the early 1990s, he saw a golden opportunity to collect information that might prove vital to U.S. interests. Thousands of refugees were pouring into Tajikistan from Afghanistan, where civil war was raging. The refugees represented a gold mine of intelligence from a nation at the crossroads of American interests in the region. But Baer, who spoke Arabic and Russian, didn't speak Dari or Pashto, the languages predominant among the refugees. So he contacted CIA headquarters and asked the agency to send Dari and Pashto speakers to debrief the refugees. The CIA couldn't - there weren't any, according to Baer. The refugees continued to come, and the United States missed an opportunity to get a life-saving glimpse into the brewing threat of radical Islam in Afghanistan.

Who's to blame? All of us.

[B]udget cuts at the State Department throughout the 1990s left the Foreign Service with about 1,100 vacancies by the time Secretary of State Colin Powell took office in January 2001. "These are positions that existed that we had no bodies to fill," says John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association. "The people we did have had to be rushed to post. In a lot of cases language training had to be shortened or not provided at all. That's a huge problem and a legacy of the lack of hiring in the 1990s."

But if the hiring pool was full of people who were fluent in these languages, that would not be a problem. But we don't teach them, and if we do teach them, the teaching too seldom reaches the kind of people who will work in the relevant services.