Lack of Arabic Speakers Hurts U.S.

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Fri Nov 21 14:38:18 MST 2003

Lack of Arabic Speakers Hurts U.S.
Tuesday November 18, 2003 8:16 PM
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - Despite catch-up efforts, the government still suffers
from a shortage of Arabic speakers that gravely hampers military,
diplomatic and intelligence operations across the Middle East.

In Iraq, the language gap makes it more difficult for soldiers to
protect themselves. At Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it has jeopardized
interrogations of suspected al-Qaida terrorists. And on Arab television
stations, it has left almost no one defending American policies.

Correcting the problem hasn't proved simple in the two years since the
Sept. 11 attacks. Arabic and other Middle East languages are radically
different from English, and it can take English-speakers several years
to speak them comfortably.

``It's easier to train someone to fly an F-14 than it is to speak
Arabic,'' said Kevin Hendzel, a spokesman for the American Translators

Critics contend the United States simply hasn't put adequate emphasis on
closing the deficiency. Britain, for example, gives extensive training
to a higher percentage of the soldiers it sends to Iraq.

``This is such a critical challenge that we have; this battle for the
minds of this very important part of the world,'' said Edward P.
Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel. ``We're simply
not there.''

Aggressive recruiting of Arabic speakers didn't begin until after the
Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, conducted by Arab extremists from the al-Qaida
network. A report by Congress' intelligence committees criticized all
major U.S. terrorism-fighting agencies for missing the growing threat of
a terror attack. Although many problems stemmed from agencies' not
sharing information, the shortage of Arab speakers may also have played
a role.

In spite of the shortage, six soldiers trained to speak Arabic were
among nine Army linguists dismissed from the service for homosexuality
within six months of the U.S. invasion of Iraq last March. Two said they
sought federal jobs to use their language skills in the war on terror
but were rejected.

The FBI has acknowledged since the attacks that it needs more and better
translators of all languages, especially Middle Eastern languages.
Similarly, the armed forces need Arabic speakers who also understand
military jargon and are in good enough shape to keep up with troops.

Instead, American troops on patrol in Iraq or rushing to secure bombing
sites often speak little if any Arabic and so must shout in English or
try to gesture their way through dangerous confrontations.

It can be just as dangerous to hire interpreters without sufficient

A recent Army report on intelligence-gathering in Iraq found the
military relying on translators who had been ``convenience store workers
and cab drivers'' in the United States, most over age 40.

At Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds of suspected terrorists remain in U.S.
custody, the arrests of three translators on spying charges forced the
military to re-evaluate some interrogations.

``If somebody from Syria comes in and says, `I want to join the FBI,'
you've got to think twice about that,'' said James Carafano, who studies
defense issues at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

A surge in student interest since the Sept. 11 attacks may offer some
hope. More than 10,000 college students were taking Arabic classes in
autumn 2002, compared with about 5,500 four years earlier, according to
the Modern Language Association.

Before the attacks, more American students - nearly 7,000 in 1998 - were
signed up to learn Portuguese.

Meanwhile, the State Department, the agency primarily tasked with
America's diplomatic relations worldwide, has fewer than 60 employees
fluent in Arabic, out of 279 total Arabic speakers. A scant five have
the polish and skills to go toe-to-toe with commentators on Middle
Eastern television programs, according to an advisory commission
Djerejian headed.

The panel recommended hiring another 300 fluent Arabic speakers within
two years and another 300 by 2008. It suggested incentives to diplomats
to maintain and improve their fluency.

To make up some of the gap, the government is turning to private
translators to handle documents and tapes through secure electronic
connections. ``The work we have right now we measure by the truckload,''
said Everette Jordan, director of the new National Virtual Translation

The government also is trying to increase its own Arabic speakers.

The Army has about 1,300 active-duty soldiers who can speak or read some
Arabic and another 100 being trained at a defense language school in

U.S. soldiers sent to Iraq also take a cultural awareness class and
receive a ``green book'' that describes cultures, customs and phrases,
including Arabic greetings, according to Army public affairs.

In contrast, several members of each British military regiment sent to
Iraq receive 10 weeks of schooling in Arabic language and culture.

Nearly 200 soldiers have attended since January, according to Col.
Anthony Rabbitt, the school's commanding officer.

In addition, all British soldiers sent to Iraq must have attended a
daylong course on Middle Eastern culture and the Arabic language.

``We realize from our experience in Northern Ireland and also in the
Balkans that basic-level greetings, confidence-building and persuasion
comes with a smile and a few words. And the more people that can say
those few words, the better,'' Rabbitt said.


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