WASHINGTON - Complicating the Obama administration's plan to ramp up civilian aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan, the State Department employs just 18 foreign service officers who can speak the language of the region where the Taliban insurgency rages, according to records and interviews.
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's a grim illustration of two problems," said Ronald Neumann, a veteran diplomat who was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. "First, there is no money, and second, there are no people."
The Pashto language is the main tongue of the mountainous Pashtun region that straddles the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda recruit and operate. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is among the estimated 35 million Pashtuns in both countries.
The State Department has long failed to meet its language needs. In 2006, the Government Accountability Office found that nearly 30% of State Department employees based overseas in "language-designated positions" could not speak and write the local language well enough to meet basic requirements.
The language deficit is one reason the United States has turned to contractors to deliver foreign aid, a practice that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says she wants to curb. Clinton is asking for billions in the coming budget to hire 1,226 additional diplomats, but it will take time to train them.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. military and the State Department boosted their training in Afghan languages, but the military commands vastly more resources. Seven years into the Afghanistan war, the Defense Department says it has trained 200 people in Pashto and 300 in Dari, the primary language of the non-Pashtun areas of Afghanistan.
The California-based Defense Language Institute has given 10,000 people some basic exposure to Pashto through mobile training units, spokesman Brian Lamar said. The Defense Department gave a half-million-dollar grant to Indiana University to train ROTC candidates in Pashto.
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.
Those figures will improve, said Ruth Whiteside, who directs State's Foreign Service Institute, which is training 13 diplomats in Pashto and 37 in Dari. A larger 2010 budget will expand those numbers, she said.
The U.S. Agency for International Development, responsible for billions of dollars in aid programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, was unable to say, despite repeated requests, how many of its employees speak Afghan languages.
In addition to the ROTC program, Indiana University trains military members of Provincial Reconstruction Teams that are an integral part of the Afghan counterinsurgency, said Paul Foster, who runs the program. The teams include State Department and USAID personnel, but "those people have never come to us," he said.