Army steps up search for Arabic speakers

Military recruiting Arab-Americans for translators, cultural aides

April 18, 2005|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Army has begun an intensive campaign to recruit hundreds of Arab-Americans as cultural advisers and translators. The effort addresses a significant handicap for the U.S. military, whose troops face daunting language and culture gaps in working with Iraqi officials and citizens.

The problem was particularly acute after the fall of Baghdad, with officers at times resorting to sign language to communicate. But two years later, the situation is not much better, officials say. One Army major, who now serves north of Baghdad, said there is only one native Arabic-speaking U.S. soldier in his brigade, which numbers between 3,000 and 5,000 soldiers.

Native speakers are "critical," said the officer, who requested anonymity, "especially in this phase of the operation when we are trying to work with the Iraqi army, police, government and people."

The program is part of a Pentagon-wide plan to boost language capabilities in the military.

Until now, the United States has depended largely on government contract interpreters and local Iraqis, as well as a pool of about 1,850 mostly non-native Arabic speakers in the Army - many of them trained at the Pentagon's respected Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. But classroom-trained Arabic speakers often fail to comprehend key nuances, military officials say.

Without a mastery of the language and customs, officials say, soldiers have run into problems. When entering an Iraqi town, for example, it can be difficult to identify key civic or religious leaders, the location of insurgents or weapons caches, or to simply build trust among the townspeople.

And not knowing Muslim customs, such as always addressing the male head of a household, can create barriers, too.

Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said he sees the Arab-American recruits as a "natural bridge" between the two cultures, providing expertise to commanders on military operations.

"They should be able to bridge the thought processes, the culture, the mores, the taboos to [help] effectively operate on missions," Blum said. The Guard, he added, is well positioned to assist in the effort since its presence in many communities brings it in closer contact with potential recruits.

While the Army has hired some Iraqi citizens to help with translation, they often have faulty English skills, and sometimes questionable allegiances, officials said.

"Dealing effectively with local leaders was less efficient, less effective, because you had to deal with translators of unknown loyalty or competence," said Col. Bill Darley, a spokesman for the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where generals returning from the war brief officials about the war's progress and problems.

An Arab-American soldier, by comparison, "is a guy you can leave alone," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., former commandant of the Army War College and author of a book on the Iraq war. "It has to do with competence and trust."

Language training

The military's plan to accelerate the effort comes on the heels of a January Pentagon report that emphasized a need in current missions - from combat and multi-country training exercises to humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts - for more soldiers skilled in "less commonly-taught languages" and better versed in regional studies. The report also calls for more emphasis on languages among officers and enlisted personnel as well as at professional schools, such as the U.S. Naval Academy.

"Post 9/11 military operations reinforce the reality that the Department of Defense needs a significantly improved ... capability in emerging languages and dialects, a greater competence and regional area skills in those languages and dialects," the report said.

Former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz in particular has pushed hard to broaden the Army translator program, which began as a pilot project and has so far recruited more than 350 native speakers to serve as "translator aides." Of those, 77 have been mobilized for overseas duty.

But Wolfowitz has grown impatient with delays in expanding the program, said Blum, the chief of the National Guard Bureau.

The Guard is now focusing its recruiting efforts for the program in states such as Michigan, Texas and California, where there are large Arabic populations. The immediate goal is to bring in 100 additional native speakers over the next year.

The Pentagon's personnel chief, David S. C. Chu, said in a recent interview that the need is "far north" of the current recruitment figure, though he was uncertain of a specific number.

Although the search centers mostly on speakers of modern Arabic, the recruiters also hope to seek out speakers of Dari Persian and Pashtu, the two main languages in Afghanistan, officials said.

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