Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Lost in translation : the Afghan War

November 3, 2010

U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan will have to demonstrate basic proficiency in Dari, the lingua franca of the country, Mother Jones  reports. It’s the latest of the orders issued by commander of U.S. and NATO forces, General David Petraeus, in a late bid to bridge the gulf with citizens. “Even a few phrases really breaks the ice and just shows good intentions,” Petraeus says in an  interview on the U.S. army- run Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System. Here’s the video.

Is it too little, too late ? Some military experts point out that just about half of Afghanistan speaks Dari.  Over a third speak Pashto, followed by Turkic languages including Uzbek and Turkmen and then 30 minor languages according to the CIA’ Factbook.  Are the soldiers going to learn a smattering of these languages too, especially Pashto, the language of the original Afghan Taliban and other Pashtuns who straddle both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border ?

Or is there another, deeper purpose to it ?  Mother Jones points out there are reports that the U.S. military is laying the ground for withdrawal by shoring up the defences of major population centers such as Kabul and Kandahar. And so if troops were to be in these big cities, it makes sense to learn a few basics of Dari, the language still most used for political communication, Pashto by contrast is spoken by relatively more people  in the areas outside the big centres including Kandahar. Dari is not going to take a soldier far in some of these areas controlled by the Taliban, but if the idea is to pull out eventually from the countryside, why  bother learning the language – Pashto in this case.  

Hard to tell if that argument holds.   It’s all part of the “advance to the rear” strategy, some would argue in classic military spin. Tactical withdrawal perhaps. Whatever the gameplan, language is a barrier in multi-lingual Afghanistan and, as we wrote sometime ago, made worse by a shortage of interpreters. In fact you have to ask who is going to teach the soldiers ?


Why aren’t they recruiting or qualifying translators in all the spoken languages?


Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see