Public Affairs Skills Gap: Shortage of Language Qualified Press Officers

Wikipedia (ويکيپېډيا) in Pashto using FreeFars...Image via WikipediaHere is one more nugget from the OIG review of the Af/Pak “bureau”:

The January 27, 2011, arrest in Lahore, Pakistan, of an American official assigned to Embassy Islamabad drew attention to a public affairs skills gap. Not once during nearly 2 months that coincided with this inspection did a Pakistan-based American public affairs official engage the Urdu-speaking media in that local language about this issue. At the 2011 Global Chiefs of Mission Conference, the final report noted that effective engagement requires talented officers and “officers who can engage contacts in local languages with fluency.”3 Likewise, the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review stated the intent to, “Make public diplomacy a core diplomatic mission by building regional media hubs staffed by skilled communicators to ensure that we can participate in public debates anywhere and anytime.”4 This is not the case –or at least not regularly – in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. The result is that other voices, including those of extremists, go unchallenged by U.S. officials speaking local languages. Public opinion in Pakistan of Americans and U.S. policy has consistently been at relatively low levels, but that situation was gradually improving [REDACTED[ until the disruption of the Lahore incident. The Lahore incident is an aberration, but it illustrates how quickly – after months of implementing a well-designed strategic communication and public diplomacy strategy –an event can halt, and even temporarily reverse, progress.
Other direct-hire American staff at the U.S. missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan have a degree of competency in the main local languages (Urdu, Pashto, and Dari), but they may not have the high level of language competency needed to speak extemporaneously in a live television interview or as part of a round table. They may not be Department employees or part of the public affairs section or have press attaché skills. According to FSI, fewer than 120 active career and career-conditional employees can read and speak these hard languages at a competency level of 3 or greater. (See table below.) A native-speaker proficiency in a foreign language is measured at or near the 5 competency level. At the time of this inspection, there were 24 Department officers in Afghanistan and Pakistan serving at that highest level of proficiency in any of the three languages. Dari speakers at the 4 level or higher numbered six, two Pashto speakers; and 14 Urdu speakers. Four Dari speakers, one Pashto speaker, and five Urdu speakers spoke those languages at the highest level.

Recommendation 12: The Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan should develop and implement a plan to recruit detailees or excepted Civil Service employees and place them in Embassy Kabul and Embassy Islamabad press offices to serve as full-time, dedicated public spokespersons; these individuals must be U.S. citizens who are proficient in the local language(s) and have press officer training or experience. (Action: S/SRAP)

Recommendation 13: The Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, in coordination with the Bureau of Human Resources and the Foreign Service Institute, should provide career public diplomacy officers with the training they need to communicate proficiently
in the designated local languages, so they can engage with the Afghan and Pakistani local language media at any time and in any place. (Action: S/SRAP, in coordination with DGHR and FSI)

Recommendation 14: The Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, in coordination with the Bureau of International Information Programs, and Embassies Kabul and Islamabad, should examine the feasibility of developing a speakers bureau of experts who are proficient in Urdu, Pashto, or Dari, who can be detailed from their regular jobs to assist with outreach and engagement strategies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This speakers bureau should include whole-of-government agencies, as well as American citizens who do not work in government and who are fluent speakers of Urdu, Pashto, or Dari to participate in public outreach and other mission-sponsored public diplomacy activities. (Action: S/SRAP, in coordination with IIP, and Embassies Kabul and Islamabad)

I do feel sorry for the six Pashto speakers in the whole State Department; Afghanistan and Pakistan will keep calling them back, never mind the one-year tours; it’s called service need.

And the State Department still insists on not/not hiring for skills needed; perhaps thinking it can train itself out of this problem. Ten years from now, unless hiring policy gets smarter, and as more FS personnel reaches the mandatory retirement age of 65 — we’ll be rocking and talking about this same language gap.

FP’s Stephen Walt in 2009 citing  DOD media relations officer Brian Lamar, wrote that the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California trains roughly 30 to 40 military personnel in Pashto each year but that most of them are enlisted men in military intelligence.

Even if we presume, for the sake of argument that the State Department trains six Pashto speakers a year, DOD has roughly six times that number every year.  How can we even think of a demilitarized U.S. foreign policy with this kind of numbers? The reality is — our development and reconstruction folks in Afghanistan not only wear combat boots, they also have their own ATMs, and they speak the local language. So…

Snapshot: Af/Pak Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy Strategy, Funding and Staffing

Via the OIG Review of the Af/Pak “Bureau” under the  Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP):

The Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy follows four pillars: expand media engagement, counter extremist voices, build communications capacity, and strengthen people-to-people ties.

To implement that strategy, Embassy Islamabad runs the Department’s largest bilateral exchange program, and Pakistan has the largest Fulbright program in the world. The public diplomacy budget for Pakistan grew from a base public diplomacy budget of approximately $1.5 million in FY 2009 to $58 million in FY 2010 for public diplomacy and strategic communications from Department and USAID funds, not counting strategic communication funds from the Department of Defense. Funds limited to public diplomacy that were spent in Pakistan in FY 2010 totaled $41.4 million (FY 2010 base of $1.6 million; FY 2009 supplemental, 2-year funds of $31.1 million; and FY 2010 supplemental regularization funding of $8.7 million). The FY 2011 budget request is for up to $110 million.

The public diplomacy budget in Afghanistan grew from a base public diplomacy budget of $1.5 million in FY 2009 to over $87.5 million in FY 2010 for public diplomacy and strategic communications from Department and USAID funds, not counting significant strategic communication funds from the Department of Defense. Funds used only for public diplomacy that were spent in Afghanistan in FY 2010 totaled $46.7 million (FY 2010 base $1.3 million; FY 2009 supplemental 2-year money $22.1 million; and FY 2010 supplemental regularization $23.3 million).

These budget increases at Embassies Kabul and Islamabad have been accompanied by a doubling of the number of public affairs officers at the two missions and by SCA/PPD staffing up to support grants management. Neither the S/SRAP unit nor SCA/PPD requires further staff augmentation to manage this increased workload.

Active links added above. Is the informational effect worth all that money?

Countering extremist voices in English is not the same as countering it in the local language or dialect.  Right there, the State Department has a problem not just in the Af/Pak super bureau but in US missions in the large swath of the world where English is not the principal language.

If extreme voices calls you a dog in American English, you should be able to call them back a dog in their language, and explain what kind of dog and why, even debate about it. No translators required, no mistranslation, no misunderstanding just what you mean. But if you can’t speak their language … well, um …. see why that’s a problem?

US Mission Afghanistan: CODEL McCain 07.03.2011

Visiting U.S. Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman during the CODEL in Kabul.  The delegation also celebrated the 235th Anniversary of American Independence Day with the U.S. Embassy in Kabul but those photos are no longer accessible at the US Embassy Kabul’s website: