Syria COH Coordination Team: Now With Native Arabic Speakers at US Embassy Kuwait

Posted: 3:07 am EDT
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We previously posted about the Syria Cessation of Hostilities (COH) Team reportedly run by the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) (see Syria Cessation of Hostilities (COH) Hotline Fail: Ceasefire Violations in the Land of Pepsi (Updated)).

On March 7, US Embassy Damascus/FB posted an updated announcement noting the addition of native Arabic speakers at the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait and a third contact number to received calls with reports of incidents and possible violations.  The new announcement also says it encourage conveying reports via text options “as it promotes clarity and assist in our record keeping.”



Syria Cessation of Hostilities (COH) Hotline Fail: Ceasefire Violations in the Land of Pepsi (Updated)

Posted: 1:49 pm EDT
Updated 6:54 pm EDT
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Via Ceasefire Violations in the Land of Pepsi

On Monday, Syria Direct’s Osama Abu Zeid called the hotline number advertised by the State Department’s Twitter account (1-202-736-7829) to report a series of Russian airstrikes on villages in southern Hama province earlier in the day.

The first State Department employee to answer the phone told Osama, in stilted Arabic, that he had the “wrong number” before disconnecting the line.

Osama redialed the same number, and another employee answered the call.

“Ok sir, I’m a Syrian journalist and I’d like to report a breach of the hudna [ceasefire] involving multiple airstrikes in the countryside south of Hama city—at the area where Hama governorate meets northern Homs province,” Osama said. [For additional reporting on this reported ceasefire violation, the Hama News Agency’s coverage is here.]

During the four-minute phone call, the operator struggled to ask basic questions regarding the incident.

At one point, when attempting to ask Osama if the strikes had resulted in any casualties, the operator instead said what appeared to be an accidental string of expletives.

Osama explained that local residents believed that Russian planes were responsible for the airstrikes based on the “intensity of the strikes” and the “number of planes” participating. Following this detailed explanation, the operator replied: “Russian.”

During the call Osama told the operator the name of the village (Hirbinifsah) four times and spelled it out.

However, when Osama asked whether the operator knew where the village was, he responded: “Yes, Harb Bebsi,” the latter being the word for “Pepsi” in Arabic.

The incident above obviously made news and also made it to the Daily Press Briefing. So, it looks like the Syria Cessation of Hostilities  (COH) Team is running as a Task Force at the State Department. This was set up in such a hurry that  no one vetted the volunteers for Arabic proficiency? There’s a question of language but also time difference? And apparently, the phone number is not a free phone number? We feel bad for the volunteers at the Task Force Syria COH team but we feel even worse for the folks who called in, and were amazed, not in the good way, with their reception.

So, contrary to what Mr. Toner says in the DPB, we understand that the Syria COH group is not/not a Task Force.   The Syria Cessation of Hostilities (COH) Team is run by the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) as a “Coordination Team.”  We hope this is not run by the office who can’t even keep its own interns. Our Foggy Bottom nightingale calls this whole thing dumb asking “who exactly is going to be emailing or calling to report violations?” You really think people are going to be inclined to give Uncle Sam their phone numbers and email addresses? Seriously?

Via the DPB:

QUESTION: — over the weekend, you guys published this phone number, these contact numbers for people to call in or to write in and report violations of the ceasefire, and apparently, some reporters from one news outlet, who were actually calling not just to – they were actually calling to report what they said were violations, ran into some problems with – apparently with some limited – with the person on the other end not having particularly great Arabic. Is this something that you’re aware of and —

MR TONER: Absolutely.

QUESTION: — if it is an issue, what’s being done to address it?

MR TONER: Well, so as you noted, we did – in order to help monitor the cessation of hostilities in Syria, we did set up an information hotline that was staffed 24/7 where violations could be reported I think via a number of different apps, also phone, email, text, WhatsApp, Telegram and Google Voice, and the information hotline was part of our broader Syria team, and it was staffed by State Department personnel, some of whom spoke or speak Arabic. We have received reports of violations and obviously added them to or fed them into the overall – the pipeline or the task force that is monitoring the ceasefire and reviewed every allegation. But as you note, there were some language issues amongst some of the volunteers. And granted, these are – these, again, are State Department employees who are doing this in addition to their usual jobs, but we are aware that there were some language issues, as you note, and we’re working to correct those, obviously, because it’s important that we have Arabic speakers who are able to field incoming calls.

QUESTION: Was that not a requirement?

MR TONER: It was, just – but given the time limits on setting this up, probably some of the language skills weren’t properly vetted. It just was people who couldn’t – they were having a hard time —

QUESTION: All right. And you said the people that are staffing this are volunteering their time to staff it?

MR TONER: That’s right.

QUESTION: Oh, okay. Well, that’s interesting. But then again, I mean, as wonderful as that is, if they can’t speak the language then —

MR TONER: Agreed. We should have people who – we should have people – agree. So we’re working to address that.

QUESTION: All right.

QUESTION: And why didn’t you set it up in the region in one of the embassies?

MR TONER: I’m sorry, the hotline?

QUESTION: This center, this hotline. With the time difference and the – with the language —

MR TONER: It’s a valid question. I don’t know. I don’t know. I think that just given the – I have no idea. I mean, usually – I’m guessing that this is run out of the Ops Center which has all the phone banks set up, can easily take incoming calls, but – and has, frankly, the facilities able to put together a task force like this but —

QUESTION: Is it a free phone number? And if not, how many cents a minute does it cost to call from Aleppo, say?

MR TONER: I believe it should be a free phone number.


MR TONER: I’ll check on all this. This is good – these are all valid questions. I just don’t have a lot of information in front of me.

QUESTION: And if it isn’t?

MR TONER: I think it’s a free phone number. It has —


MR TONER: It’s not?


MR TONER: Oh, okay.

QUESTION: Mark, are all of these staffers volunteers or is it a mix?

MR TONER: Yes. I believe they are volunteers. Is that what you’re questioning, or that they’re not?

QUESTION: I’m not (inaudible).


QUESTION: Mark, are you sure that they’re doing this in addition to doing their regular jobs? I mean, if you’re doing —

MR TONER: That’s what I was told, yeah.


QUESTION: Could I just follow up on the ceasefire itself?

QUESTION: Sorry, Said. What’s the number? Do you have that?

MR TONER: I don’t have it in front of me, sorry. I completely failed on this issue, I apologize.



NEA and SPP Language Divisions Moving Out of the Foreign Service Institute?

Posted: 12:47 am EDT
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The Foreign Service Institute is located at the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center (NFATC) in Arlington, Virginia.  An expansion of facilities on FSI’s 72-acre campus in 2010 added 100 classrooms. About 2,000 students are on campus daily.


It looks like that expansion is not enough.  There is apparently a lot of rumors circulating that the SPP and NEA language divisions will be moving out of SA-42 (FSI) to “a new space somewhere along the Orange line.”  We understand that this topic has lighted up the Secretary’s Sounding Board, never mind that JK is traveling.

This rumored move, if true, would reportedly affect 1) the Division of Near East Central, and South Asian Languages (FSI/SLS/NEA) which directs, designs and conducts proficiency-based language training for Arabic, Near Eastern, Turkic, Central and South Asian languages; and 2) the Division of Slavic, Pashto, and Persian Languages (FSI/SLS/SPP) which directs, designs, and conducts proficiency-based language training for all Slavic languages including Bosnian, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Czech, Macedonian, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, and Ukrainian, Pashto and Persian languages including Dari, Tajiki, and Farsi.

People are apparently not happy about this rumored move. Some are posting questions on the Board, and hoping to find some clarity on what to expect next. Here are some of the employees’ concerns over the future of language training at FSI:

  • Looking for transparency:  “Given the massive number of employees this change will impact, both students and instructors, can we get a little transparency on what’s going on?”  One commenter writes that many find it “odd that language studies, arguably the priority purpose of FSI, would see such a huge change with little to no public discussion or outreach from FSI.”
  • Long-term vs. short-term: Why was the decision made to move long-term language studies (9-12 months in length in many cases) instead of short-term and intermittent courses (leadership, regional training, stability operations, area studies, world languages, etc.)?
  • Co-location: Will the new facilities be co-located with language division administration? This is a big deal in the event that a student has to make changes with class assignment).
  • Transportation/Commute/Parking : How will people commute to the new facilities? Is there a bus? Is there equally priced parking available nearby? Concerns that transportation issue affect not just students but also many of the language instructors and staff who live quite far from FSI and even further from Rosslyn, where there is a shuttle.
  • Language Lab/Tools: Are the language learning tools available at the new facilities? Language labs are a big part of reaching proficiency standards, will students have to go back to FSI in order to access labs?
  • Daycare: For personnel with kids, employees are interested whether they will have access to daycare. When transferring or rotating assignments, Foreign Service personnel with young kids rely heavily on the availability of reliable and accessible childcare at FSI. “The provision of childcare has always helped alleviate some of the stresses associated with the rigors of intensively learning a new language.” Depending on the new location, there is also the potential for disruption in the Oakwood housing program.
  • Town Hall: One requested a town hall meeting with the FSI administration for current and future students in the languages affected “so people can ask questions and get more information as they begin to plan for language training.”


We should note that both the NEA and SPP language divisions are part of FSI’s School of Language Studies (SLS). The School of Language Studies (SLS), with 684 staff members, 3 overseas schools, and 11 regional language programs, offers training and testing in more than 70 languages.   According to the OIG, SLS is the largest of FSI’s schools, with a base budget of $33.5 million in FY 2012 and a total budget of $46.7 million, which includes $5.5 million in reimbursements from other agencies.

In December 2012, SLS had 684 staff members: 374 direct-hire employees and 310 full-time equivalent contractors. SLS is managed by a dean and two associate deans and is composed of a testing division, five language divisions, a Curriculum and Staff Development division, and an administrative section. SLS trains employees of the Department, USAID, and other agencies in 70 languages ranging from Spanish to super hard languages such as Korean.

In any case, there is a slow train for consolidation humming in the State Department. One of Diplomatic Security’s arguments for building the FASTC in Virginia instead of Georgia is so all the training programs can be in one location.  Just recently, the IRM training located in Warrenton, VA had also been moved to the FSI campus. If the NEA/SPP move is true, is this SLS’ initial move at dispersing its divisions?

If true, the question then becomes “why”?

The most recent OIG inspection of FSI is dated March 2013. That report notes that “SLS needs organizational and programmatic changes to strengthen pedagogy, coordination, and strategic planning. Outside review of a portion of recorded language test samples and other steps are required to address the inherent conflict of interest of SLS instructors serving as testers.” The report made 79 recommendations and 23 informal recommendations, however, we could not locate one specifically related to NEA/SPP, or the school’s expansion or spin off location outside of FSI.



Ambassador Matthew Barzun Says Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyll-llantysiliogogogoch

— Domani Spero
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Matthew Barzun, our Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s will soon get royally slammed for suggesting undiplomatically that he can’t stand British lamb.  The New York Daily News writes that “you don’t need to be fluent in the King’s English to predict the outrage.” Uh-oh!

Okay, so before you all get mad about the lamb, he also did try to learn a few sentences of Welsh in preparation for the NATO summit this week.  So he gets points for that.  Let’s hear it from Wales Online who is “delighted to see Mr Barzun having a go” at learning Welsh:

US ambassador to the UK, Matthew Barzun, wasn’t shy about sharing the more painful moments of his attempts to learn his first few sentences in Welsh – despite taking nine attempts to master saying “Helô”.
Mr Barzun, who was appointed as ambassador to the UK last year after previously being ambassador to Sweden, posted the video of his Welsh attempts, which also included the essential “Croeso i Gymru, President Obama”, the very useful “dwi’n hoffi coffi” (I like coffee) and a very impressive beginner’s pronunciation of the famous Anglesey village Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyll-llantysiliogogogoch.
But he also displayed some knowledge of Welsh popular culture and one of our most famous export – confessing in Welsh that the three words of the language that Americans know are “Catherine. Zeta. Jones.”


We don’t know if they teach Welsh at FSI; though probably not.  In any case, here are the outtakes:



One of the commenters on WalesOnline writes, “Welsh is a really difficult language to master, even for the Welsh people !! The fact that you have made the effort , is such a compliment.”  

We imagine that Ambassador Barzun will probably impress most Welsh folks with his attempts to speak even a few phrases of their language. We’d be really impressed if the ambassador also gets to visit the Cardiff Rift that runs through Roald Dahl Plass, a public plaza in Cardiff Bay, and takes a selfie with our favorite Captain Jack Harkness. Captain Jack is there somewhere, somebody fiiiinnnnd hiiiiim and bring him back to the telly!

Oh, pardon me … what about the lamb? Those suggested recipes may have to wait until after the Summit, but the ambassador already realized he’s in a lamb stew of sorts:

* * *









State/OIG: US Mission Vietnam — One Mission, One Team, Well, Sort Of

Several weeks back, State/OIG released its inspection report of the US Embassy Hanoi and Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. The US Ambassador to Vietnam is career diplomat, David Shear who arrived at post in August 2011. The Consul General at Ho Chi Minh City is An T. Le who arrived at post in August 2010. The Consular Chief in Hanoi is Deborah Fairman who arrived at Embassy Hanoi in August 2009 and became section chief in July 2011, according to the OIG report. The Consular Chief at CG Ho Chi Minh City is not named in the report.

The inspection took place in Washington, DC, between September 7 and 27, 2011; in Hanoi, Vietnam, between October 20 and November 2, 2011, and between November 19 and 21, 2011; and in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, between November 2 and 18, 2011. The names of the members of the inspection team have been redacted.

U.S. Ambassador David Shear opens safe medicine exhibition in Hanoi
(Photo from USAID Vietnam/Flickr)

Some of the key judgments, so very well couched you got to read between the lines:

  • The Ambassador in Hanoi, the consul general in Ho Chi Minh City, and their respective deputies, should be at the forefront of an effort to more effectively coordinate embassy and consulate general operations. Increasing and formalizing regular, planned working visits of American and local employees between the two posts are a necessary step.
  • Embassy Hanoi’s reporting is generally comprehensive and of high quality, although staffing gaps and the loss of a position have adversely affected Hanoi’s output. Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City has not reported frequently enough or in sufficient detail on the official activities, meetings and policy views of the consul general.
  • Overall management operations at Embassy Hanoi and Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City are effective, although stronger cooperation and teamwork between the two are necessary.
  • The need for heightened involvement by embassy management in the mission’s management controls program is evident. Management control procedures at both Embassy Hanoi and Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City need to be carefully reviewed to ensure that employees at every level are fully aware of their responsibility for ensuring that controls are in place to protect assets and to avoid any perception of conflict of interest.

    U.S. Consul General Le An at Long An Province during a visit to USAID flood relief beneficiaries
    (Photo from USAID Vietnam/Flickr)

Ambassador Shear arrived at post about couple months before this OIG inspection.  The previous Chief of Mission at US Embassy Hanoi was career FSO, Michael W. Michalak who left post on February 14, 2011. Some of the finer points from the report:

  • The Ambassador also has engaged decisively with the embassy’s sole constituent post: the large and influential Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). On his introductory visit to Ho Chi Minh City, the Ambassador stressed to the American and Vietnamese staff that, as Chief of Mission, he values the important role of the consulate general and expects the embassy and consulate general staffs to function as “one mission, one team.” His message was especially welcome in view of a number of legacy issues, including Ho Chi Minh City’s continuing role as the economic and commercial hub of the entire country, the persistent cultural and historical differences between Vietnam’s North and South, and the symbolic significance that today’s consulate general is located on the site of the former embassy.
  • Embassy Hanoi and Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City, until recently, have operated more like two, separate missions than one, cohesive entity. The embassy has not provided, nor has the consulate general sought, regular guidance as to how the two posts can best operate together. With the arrival of new staff in summer 2011, both the embassy and the consulate general have started thinking about ways to project a “one mission, one team” face to the government and people of Vietnam and to the respective mission staffs. A necessary step to improving the mission’s cohesiveness will be increasing and formalizing a process whereby American and local employees conduct working visits between the two posts, for consultations and training.

There is no “I” in team, and hey, what about those pol reports?

  • The consul general is fluent in Vietnamese and has a deep understanding of the host country’s culture and norms. However, he only infrequently writes cables regarding his meetings outside the consulate general. It is important that he include other officers in all meetings related to political and economic affairs, human rights, the environment, energy, adoption concerns, treatment of minorities, and other matters relevant to their respective portfolios. The expertise of these officers should be called upon, even if it means relying on interpreters in some situations. (The Vietnamese language is notoriously difficult; even language-qualified officers sometimes require assistance from native speakers in unscripted situations.) The officers could act as note takers, and write cables or provide other information coming out of these meetings. In a closely controlled political environment such as Vietnam, no post official, including the consul general himself, should meet with Vietnamese officials unaccompanied. As an added benefit, in a culture that venerates seniority and status, including officers in meetings would enhance their ability to develop contacts and follow up independently on important issues.
  • The consulate general has produced some valuable and insightful reporting, but generally there is far less reporting than would be expected of a post of its size. Material provided by a consulate general often ends up in cables from the embassy, and there is a vibrant, informal exchange between the respective political and economic sections. More telling, however, is the lack of emphasis upon reporting by the consul general, who does not routinely report on his own activities nor provide comprehensive readouts. For example, a single cable reported on his visits to 6 provinces over the course of 7 months. This disinclination both eliminated a major source of reporting, as compared to previous years, and undercut the ability of other officers to follow up on his meetings. The inspection team counseled the consul general and his deputy to follow standard reporting practices.

iPads with no wi-fi, because folks will, of course pay for 4G in Vietnam – wait, what?!

  • For security reasons, there is no wireless Internet access at the embassy’s American Center, which limits the usefulness of the its new iPads. The OIG team discussed this situation with the embassy’s information management (IM) section, but due to the technical complexity of the issues, no decisions had been made by the end of the inspection. It is important that the mission continue to research ways to resolve these issues and still comply with Department regulations in 5 FAM 790-792.

VietNamNet has a pretty straightforward explanation – the new iPad has the advantage of having a 4G connection. However, that advantage has no use in Vietnam, where no mobile network has provided 4G services. So if you can’t use the new iPads at the American Center because there is no wireless access and there is no 4G service in Vietnam, the embassy clearly bought itself some pretty expensive mousepads.

The OIG inspectors, blessed their hearts recommends “that Embassy Hanoi explore the feasibility of establishing wireless Internet access or otherwise maximizing the usability of the Hanoi American Center’s iPads.”

Visa Referral System for national interests and who else?

  • The consulate general executive office, including both American and local staff, frequently contact the consular section to pass on information about specific visa applicants. For instance, they might ask the section to review a case; tell why they believe an applicant is qualified; or ask the consular chief or another manager to conduct a second interview. These practices violate the Department’s worldwide referral policy, which mandates that no information on specific cases be passed to the section outside of formal referrals. It is appropriate for the executive office to forward relevant correspondence to the consular section, but it should not ask for special treatment of visa applicants or advocate on their behalf outside the referral system. Shortly before this inspection, the deputy principal officer told local staff to stop sending cases directly to the consular section.
  • There are several issues regarding the way the referral system is handled at the consulate general. Not all referrals indicate how that referral directly supports U.S. national interests; they also do not specify the nature and degree of contact the person making the referral has had with the applicant, as is required by 9 FAM Appendix K.
  • The inspectors counseled the consul general and the deputy principal officer on the Department’s referral policy. They suggested having cards printed, explaining that visa eligibility is determined by strict legal requirements and that the consulate general’s leaders cannot influence the decision. This card, which could be given to anyone inquiring about visas, also could refer applicants to the consulate general’s Web site for additional information. The consul general accepted this suggestion.
  • The mission’s referral policy is out-of-date. As stated above, the referral practices conflict with Department policy on what constitutes a legitimate referral. The consular officers at the consulate general have not been trained on the Department’s policy. Because compliance has been an issue, it will be important for the Ambassador to review a monthly report on all referral cases, including information on any email or other contacts that circumvent the policy.

Wait, wait, our memory may be foggy but at some point in 2009 or 2010, we understand that there was a notice that went out to all missions requiring that the chief of the consular section provide a copy of the Worldwide Visa Referral Policy to mission staff and conduct a referral briefing to each officer who is authorized to utilize the mission referral system, before that officer submits and/or approves any visa referrals.  Actually it is in  9 FAM APPENDIX K, 102 WORLDWIDE VISA REFERRAL POLICY.  Now, this is not optional; the regs even say that “If an officer has not attended a referral briefing and signed the Worldwide NIV Referral Policy Compliance Agreement, he or she may not authorize or approve a referral, regardless of his or her position.”

That includes everyone, including Chiefs of Missions and Consul Generals, no doubt.

If there’s one thing that the State Department is really good at, it is writing and sending cables.  So if these senior officers had to be counseled by the OIG on the Department’s worldwide referral policy what are we to think? That they don’t read their incoming cables? Or were folks aware of the referral policy but were too scared to rock the boat?

We don’t know this for sure but we imagine that Vietnam as a communist country is considered a critical threat post for human intelligence. So, if those visa referrals did not indicate how each directly supports U.S. national interest, how come no one is asked to review all of them?

Consular managers missing on the visa line

  • The mission has a policy called “self clearing” that permits experienced, entry-level officers to send, without a manager’s review, memoranda requesting revocation of a petition. Given the sensitivity of these memoranda and the need for consistency, a manager should review all of them before they are sent to the National Visa Center for transmission to the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Some officers indicated that managers spend little time on the visa line. The inspectors emphasized the importance of managers spending some time adjudicating on the line, both to understand any systemic problems and to regularly see the types of cases that officers encounter.

Ugh!  And where’s the lead by example and all that feel good stuff about holding self accountable and modeling the leadership tenets? This is the kind of thing that makes newbies get jaded rather quickly. “Lead by example” but what if they’re learning the bad example?

FSI language training fail or who the heck talks nuclear proliferation with visa applicants?

  • Consular officers also indicated the language training at the Foreign Service Institute did not help them conduct consular interviews; many were more comfortable talking about nuclear nonproliferation than about family relationships.
  • The criteria for designating language study for a particular position (per 13 FAM 221 b.(l)) is that “only those positions where language proficiency is essential, rather than merely helpful or convenient, should be designated…” Language training, although useful, is expensive and time consuming. As such, it should provide officers with the particular language skills needed to adequately perform their job.

Oh dear, like how difficult is this really – you ask, Bạn có bao nhiêu trẻ em? or Urani bao nhiêu bạn có trong căn nhà của bạn? You can just ask the visa applicant how many kids do you have or how much Uranium do you have in your house? Or what kind of heavy water do you use in your laundry? Or are you or anyone in your family ever employed by A.Q Khan? The possibilities are endless, so really there’s no need to have a consular-centric vocabulary to adequately perform a consular job.

Follow the leader, it works

  • The consul general in Ho Chi Minh City circumvented host government importation restrictions by bringing in a vehicle that was more than 5 years old. There have been no reported repercussions. The stated reason behind the importation was to encourage the host government to relax this importation requirement, but the matter has not gained any momentum. It has not been followed up with a diplomatic note, nor was the issue raised with the Office of Foreign Missions. No other exceptions to the rule have been attempted, though some officers were encouraged to also import vehicles older than 5 years.

And so there you have it …. and life goes on….

The names of the accountable, responsible principal officers are all in the OIG reports and a matter of public record.  We hope to save our reading folks time from having to dig them up.

Domani Spero

Related item:

Inspection of Embassy Hanoi and Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Report Number ISP-I-12-11A, February 2012

Question of the Day: Studying Arabic for 4 years and not ever getting to a 2/2?

Image via Wikipedia
The language shortfall at the State Department has been well documented in various reports of the Government Accountability Office.  We understand it’s hard, especially the more
challenging languages. 
But if an FSO has been studying Arabic for um, four years (about 176 weeks of class work) and does not ever get a 2/2 in speaking/reading proficiency, what happens?

The normal course of study and proficiency for super hard languages like Arabic and Chinese is 88 weeks for S-3/R-3 proficiency and 44 weeks for S-2/R-2 proficiency.

The more interesting question, of course, is how does one manage to get an extra 132 weeks to get to a 2/2 after already having 44 weeks and failing to get a 2/2?

Curious minds would like to know.

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 Embassy Oman: Arabic Language Proficiency

An all too familiar report on Arabic proficiency and staffing gap. This one excerpted from the newly released OIG report on the US Embassy in Oman:

None of the section’s officers has reached a level of language competence that allows them to discuss embassy business in Arabic at a professional level. Government officials and educated interlocutors usually speak English, but the lack of Arabic proficiency among political and economic officers limits outreach beyond society’s elite. One employee remarked that the lack of language ability insulates American officers from Omani culture. This is to be expected in a section staffed primarily by ELOs, who cannot receive the full two years of Arabic language training needed to establish proficiency in the language. The embassy is delaying the arrival of one of the new ELOs to allow for one full year of Arabic language training.
Public diplomacy outreach in Oman is often conducted in English, in whole or in part. The current assistant public affairs officer (PAO) did not complete the one year of training required for his position and is on a language waiver. The PAO routinely uses Arabic in conversation and in informal remarks with other Omani audiences. When possible, officers speak Arabic at least as an ice-breaker. For example, the PAO speaks Arabic to open each year’s orientation for teenage exchange students and their parents. As the embassy actively seeks opportunities to reach out to grassroots and non-elite civil society organizations where interlocutors less commonly speak fluent English, it would significantly enhance the embassy’s outreach success if officers were trained in Arabic to the conversational level. The Department-wide deficit of public diplomacy cone officers, along with staffing requirements in Iraq and the growth at Middle Eastern posts, make this a global issue outside the scope of this inspection.

OIG Report No. ISP-I-10-71A – Inspection of Embassy Muscat, Oman – August 2010



Huh? News: Interpeter Bungles Afghan Translation for US Military

This one is must-see tv from ABC News: What Did He Say?

Read ABC News related item on a whistleblower claim that many U.S. interpreters can’t speak Afghan languages here.