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New language-training detachments preparing Soldiers for Afghanistan

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (March 18, 2010) -- Soldiers at Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Carson, Colo., are now taking language courses that will better prepare them to meet the demands of operations in Afghanistan.

Since Feb.1, more than 70 Soldiers at Fort Campbell have studied either Dari or Pashto in advance of their upcoming deployments to Afghanistan. At Fort Carson, 270 Soldiers began learning Dari, March 8. It's expected some 70 Soldiers will begin Dari instruction in early April at Fort Drum, N.Y.

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The three installations now host "Campaign Continuity Language Training Detachments." The detachments are the result of a partnership between the operational Army and the Defense Language Institute. The pilot program is a direct response to requirements put forth by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan, to put more "language-enabled" Soldiers on the ground there.

"His goal is to have one leader in every platoon or platoon-sized element that will interact with the Afghan population who is familiar enough with the Dari language to go beyond the 'hellos' and 'thank yous' and platitudes -- but to instead have rudimentary conversations," said Lt. Col. Stephen J. Maranian, executive officer for the Army training directorate, G-3/5/7.

The three detachments were built with funding from the Joint Staff from the overseas contingency operations budget. Maranian said money is allocated already for fiscal years 2011-2015 to expand the program to more installations. Right now the DLI detachments are staffed with native-language speaking DLI contractors as the instructors, and Department of the Army civilians as local program managers. The language-training capability won't be exclusive to just the Army either, he said, but will be available to other services.

The first iteration of the course at Fort Carson lasts seven weeks, because when the first day of class kicked off there, students didn't have as much time to train before their deployment. But the second iteration of classes there, along with the classes being taught now at Fort Campbell, and the classes to be taught at Fort Drum, are 16 weeks long.

Maranian said 16 weeks is based on data that suggests students -- who take a course structured like the CCLTD -- can achieve results in that amount of time which will meet the theater commander's needs.

"We're comfortable that at that duration, with chain of command emphasis and student commitment, we're going to get a really good product," he said.

McChrystal asked, in a November 2009 memorandum, that each "platoon, or like sized organization" that will have regular contact with the population of Afghanistan should have "at least one leader that speaks Dari at least 0+ level, with a goal of level 1 in oral communications."

Most students in the past who have taken a 16-week language course ended up with a "0+/0+" level of language capability -- a rating that refers both to speaking and listening capability -- but many have achieved the higher 1/1 goal.

Clare Bugary, the director of operations at DLI, said the 16-week course will meet the 0+ requirement set by McChrystal, but for Soldiers to exceed that and achieve the goal of a level 1 skill, they will need to push themselves.

"The key is motivation," she said. "If they want it, they can get there. And what we are seeing at Carson and Campbell now is a motivated group of Soldiers who are applying themselves."

Bugary said to guarantee higher levels of language proficiency, students will need to spend more time in class. The DLI's normal Pashto-basic course is 64 weeks long, for instance. "There's no way the Army can send everybody through that."

"It's an issue of time really," she said. But she added that the 16 weeks the Army is committing "says a lot" about their willingness to have Soldiers learn both the language and the culture of Afghanistan. "It's a big commitment for the Army to do that, and it's very encouraging that the Army takes the steps to incorporate language and cultural training. It's going to have a positive effect."

Bugary said the language skill levels, "0+", or "1", for instance, are defined by the Interagency Language Roundtable. On the scale, a level 0 learner has "no ability whatsoever," while a level 0+ learner is "able to satisfy immediate needs with learned utterances." A level 1 student is "able to satisfy basic survival needs and minimum courtesy requirements."

For this fiscal year -- which ends Sept. 30 -- Maranian said he believes the pilot iteration of language training can reach some 600 Soldiers total.

"That meets the goal of the pilot and sets the stage for continued expansion of the program," he said. "We're training about 70-75 per brigade combat team, with a goal of one language-enabled leader in each platoon or platoon-sized element which has regular contact with the Afghan populace."

The coursework in the CCLTDs is structured after that included in a larger Department of Defense program called "AFPAK Hands," which is a language and culture-immersion program for field grade officers, senior NCOs, and DOD civilians that includes not just instruction, but a nearly five-year commitment to a specific portion of the mission in Afghanistan.

Bugary said students in the CCLTDs are learning the language alphabet and also phrases, to provide a "proficiency foundation." But she also said students will come out of the class with enough knowledge to not just repeat phrases, but to know how to replace words in a sentence to change their meaning and to have enough knowledge to seek out more knowledge -- so it's not simply reading off a card.

"What you don't want to do is have them memorize sounds they don't know what they mean," she said. "They can't extrapolate meaning from what they don't know."

Sam G. Garzaniti, director of the Campaign Continuity Language Program at Fort Campbell, said the classes focus first on basic listening and speaking skills before moving on to more practical applications for Soldiers in theater. Maranian added that counterinsurgency doctrine makes it absolutely essential to be able to communicate with village elders about such things as governance, economics and security.

"After a month, they know alphabet and basic phrases," he said. "In the coming weeks, they will learn social, economic, and military vocabulary to assist them when partnering with and operating amongst the Afghan people."

The courses also focus on cultural awareness, to help Soldiers learn to avoid the cultural faux pas that could hinder their unit's ability to conduct operations. Equally important, Garzaniti said, is that Soldiers pass what they have learned to other Soldiers in their unit.

"I would hope they impart to fellow Soldiers some language, but especially culture," Garzaniti said, himself a former military linguist.

Knowing how to communicate with Afghan civilians not only makes conducting operations there easier, but also helps build rapport with Afghan nationals, said 1st Lt. Robert Sagris, a student in the Fort Campbell language detachment.

In COIN doctrine, relationships are key to achieving success. "Every time I've dealt with a native speaker of a language, being able to express the simplest things in their tongue goes a long way in showing we are putting out an effort and trying to relate," Sagris said.

Sagris, who serves with the 426th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, is a prior-enlisted Arabic linguist, and deployed in 2008 to Iraq. He's preparing now for a deployment to Afghanistan and says he knows those Soldiers participating with him in the language course are going to bring needed capability to their units.

"After this course, they'll have skills and ability to do basic translation," he said. "Each and every one of these students are going to be an asset their commanders will be able to leverage. Even at the most basic level, it'll be a strong asset."

Staff Sgt. Kenneth Forbus, a sniper squad leader with the 1-61 Cavalry, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, returned from a year-long Afghanistan deployment in March 2009. He's getting ready to go back. Last time he deployed, he went with "absolutely no-language skills." His experience there let him know how useful it'd be to learn the local language.

"We can have some basic conversation with the locals and gain some confidence," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of your day you are on patrol -- you're not going there to fight a bad guy. There's a lot of time to interact with people -- if you could talk to them: do they have food, are they getting what they need? If you can talk to them, it's huge. You get a lot accomplished if they feel they relate to you."

Forbus said he's impressed with the coursework, and with the instructors. He said he believes having learned the language will enhance his deployment experience in Afghanistan.

"Now I can go there and talk to the people myself and understand them and interact with them, instead of just pulling security in the mountains," he said. "I think it'll be much more enjoyable."

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