Language Shortfalls at the State Department, Revisited

No money, no people, and a philosophy from an outdated era

Source: OIG Report, 2006

Ken Dilanian of USA Today reported last week on the language shortfalls at the State Department: State Dept. has few who speak language of area where Taliban operates.

His report says that according to records and interviews, State employs just 18 Foreign Service officers who can speak the language of the region where the Taliban insurgency rages. “Two of them work in Afghanistan, both in the capital, Kabul, according to the State Department’s Bureau of Human Resources. Five are in Peshawar, Pakistan.” It quoted Ronald Neumann, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 as saying: “It’s a grim illustration of two problems. First, there is no money, and second, there are no people.”

Apparently, the Defense Department has trained 200 people in Pashto and 300 in Dari, the primary language of the non-Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. On the other hand, the report says that “The State Department’s efforts have been more modest. In addition to the 18 Foreign Service officers who are proficient in Pashto, 82 speak Dari, State’s bureau of human resources said in an e-mail. It said 20 Dari speakers are in Afghanistan. Foreign Service Institute is also training 13 diplomats in Pashto and 37 in Dari.” A larger 2010 budget will expand those numbers according to FSI Director Ruth Whiteside quoted in the report.

So that makes 7 Pashto-speaking FSOs in the Af/Pak region right now. Where are the remaining 11 FSOs posted? I don’t know. But assignments in hard locations like Afghanistan and Pakistan are usually “unaccompanied” and have one-year durations. Given that we’re seven years into the Afghan war, even if we reduce the number assigned to that region to 5 FSOs in each of the last 6 years, that still amounts to something like a 1 ½ tour for those qualified speakers. I suspect that almost all of those 18-language qualified employees would have done their second tour in the region by now.

Isn’t this the same old story that happened to the Arabic speakers sent to Iraq? At a certain point, you run out of qualified speakers. What do you do? Make people do repeat tours for a second, third, fourth time? Or maybe give others 3.5hours of Arabic training and send them off to battle sheep, the electric grid, water wells, etc. in the provinces of Baghdad. Only this time they’ll do this now in the rural areas of Afghanistan?

The report also says that State has 82 Dari speakers, and 20 are currently in Afghanistan. The Official Spokesman has recently said that State has “identified more than fifty civilians who will be in position by early summer.” And that “represent a 50 % increase to our current civilian staffing outside of Kabul.”

It is not clear if the number he cited are FSOs, CRS component, 3161 employees or a combined composition of all three. But if all the remaining 62 Dari qualified officers would go to Kabul, that’ll be good until next summer when they rotate out. And then …there are 13 Pashto and 37 Dari officers currently on training at FSI, plus whatever number is added from the FY10 budget. Those can then rotate into the region in summer 2010. What happens in summer 2011? How about summer 2012?

You know what’s going to happen – it happened before when we fumbled into Baghdad. There will be a mad scramble at the Hill to find out more about this language deficit. We don’t have enough people to go; it’s not like this is really news. But Congress will be shocked and the CRS or the GAO will be tasked to review the language shortfalls at the State Department, again. The good thing about that is — the last report the GAO conducted was way back in August 2006, so it’s about time to check on what strides had been made in the last 30 months.

From publicly available materials from 2006: The Government Accountability Office reported that as of October 2005, there were 3,267 positions (43 percent) in the State Department that required some level of foreign language proficiency. These positions span about 69 languages.

At that time, the GAO compared the language proficiency of staff in all language-designated positions with the requirements for the positions. Its analysis showed that 71 percent of all worldwide language-designated positions were filled by individuals who met the position’s proficiency requirements, while 29 percent of the positions were not. Language deficiencies exist world-wide, but were among the greatest in the Middle East, a region of great importance to the war on terror, where 37 percent of all language-designated positions were filled by staff without the language skills required of their positions. The skills gap was even greater at some critical posts; for example, 59 percent in Cairo, Egypt; and 60 percent in Sana’a, Yemen.

After reading this report, I was not sure which is worse – that there is large skills gap or that the training provided is an ineffective response against the real world requirement. The report cited an example from US Mission Sana’a where even a level-3 Arabic speaking and reading proficiency is not enough for senior officers to participate in debates about U.S. foreign policy in Arabic.

Sigh … we need an embeddable language microchip, people! This is the consequences of underfunding but also of short-term planning. Even if money is appropriated now, and additional people are hired, time is in extremely short supply.

The GAO points out that State’s philosophy is to hire officers with a wide range of skills that it believes are predictors of success in the Foreign Service. It does not hire exclusively for skills that State can train, such as foreign languages. As a result, State’s primary approach to meeting its language requirements is through language training, primarily through classes provided at its training arm, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). An officer’s training can last as short as 3.5 hours (like the Arabic PRT), or from a few months to six months; for harder languages, I think they still go for 12 months or 24 months.

Frankly, this is an old school philosophy that suited the cold-war era of containment where then Soviet power according to George Kennan “does not take unnecessary risks. Impervious to logic of reason, and it is highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw–and usually does when strong resistance is encountered at any point.”

Our current universe is everything about risks. The current enemy stretches the globe like a giant octopus, with tentacles in many different hot spots around the world. Do you think our opponents in the “war of ideas” will wait quietly until we’re done and ready to counter them?

If there is ever a time when State’s hiring and recruitment philosophy needs an extreme makeover, that time is now. State does not have the luxury of time for training its officers from scratch whether in functional, regional or language areas. It needs to speed up, and it can’t speed up using the same old SOPs from an outdated era.

Retired Army officer, John A. Nagl writing for The Wilson Quarterly on
The Expeditionary Imperative: “The State Department has finally requested the money to hire 1,100 new Foreign Service ­officers—­the biggest increase since ­Vietnam—­but there is no guarantee that it will be approved by Congress, and no understanding that this 15 percent increase must be only a down payment. At a recent conference on building capacity to win the wars of the 21st century, a four-star Army general exploded, “Eleven hundred! I need another 11,000, and I need them now!”

Despite talks about 21st century wars and 21st century diplomacy, one fact remains. In many parts of the bureaucracy, the 20th century is clinging mightily hard to dear life, afraid to budge to a changed world and a new reality. It is time to change that.

Related Items:

  • State Department: Staffing and Foreign Language Shortfalls Persist Despite Initiatives to Address Gaps: GAO-07-1154T, August 1, 2007
  • Department of State: Staffing and Foreign Language Shortfalls Persist Despite Initiatives to Address Gaps: GAO-06-894, August 4, 2006
  • State Department: Targets for Hiring, Filling Vacancies Overseas Being Met, but Gaps Remain in Hard-to-Learn Languages: GAO-04-139, November 19, 2003
  • Foreign Languages: Workforce Planning Could Help Address Staffing and Proficiency Shortfalls: GAO-02-514T, March 12, 2002
  • Foreign Languages: Human Capital Approach Needed to Correct Staffing and Proficiency Shortfalls: GAO-02-375, January 31, 2002