Army steps up search for Arabic speakers

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - The Army has begun an intensive campaign to recruit hundreds of Arab-Americans as cultural advisers and translators. The effort addresses a significant handicap for the U.S. military, whose troops face daunting language and culture gaps in working with Iraqi officials and citizens.

The problem was particularly acute after the fall of Baghdad, with officers at times resorting to sign language to communicate. But two years later, the situation is not much better, officials say. One Army major, who now serves north of Baghdad, said there is only one native Arabic-speaking U.S. soldier in his brigade, which numbers between 3,000 and 5,000 soldiers.


Native speakers are "critical," said the officer, who requested anonymity, "especially in this phase of the operation when we are trying to work with the Iraqi army, police, government and people."

The program is part of a Pentagon-wide plan to boost language capabilities in the military.


Until now, the United States has depended largely on government contract interpreters and local Iraqis, as well as a pool of about 1,850 mostly non-native Arabic speakers in the Army - many of them trained at the Pentagon's respected Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. But classroom-trained Arabic speakers often fail to comprehend key nuances, military officials say.

Without a mastery of the language and customs, officials say, soldiers have run into problems. When entering an Iraqi town, for example, it can be difficult to identify key civic or religious leaders, the location of insurgents or weapons caches, or to simply build trust among the townspeople.

And not knowing Muslim customs, such as always addressing the male head of a household, can create barriers, too.

Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said he sees the Arab-American recruits as a "natural bridge" between the two cultures, providing expertise to commanders on military operations.

"They should be able to bridge the thought processes, the culture, the mores, the taboos to [help] effectively operate on missions," Blum said. The Guard, he added, is well positioned to assist in the effort since its presence in many communities brings it in closer contact with potential recruits.

While the Army has hired some Iraqi citizens to help with translation, they often have faulty English skills, and sometimes questionable allegiances, officials said.

"Dealing effectively with local leaders was less efficient, less effective, because you had to deal with translators of unknown loyalty or competence," said Col. Bill Darley, a spokesman for the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where generals returning from the war brief officials about the war's progress and problems.

An Arab-American soldier, by comparison, "is a guy you can leave alone," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., former commandant of the Army War College and author of a book on the Iraq war. "It has to do with competence and trust."


Language training

The military's plan to accelerate the effort comes on the heels of a January Pentagon report that emphasized a need in current missions - from combat and multi-country training exercises to humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts - for more soldiers skilled in "less commonly-taught languages" and better versed in regional studies. The report also calls for more emphasis on languages among officers and enlisted personnel as well as at professional schools, such as the U.S. Naval Academy.

"Post 9/11 military operations reinforce the reality that the Department of Defense needs a significantly improved ... capability in emerging languages and dialects, a greater competence and regional area skills in those languages and dialects," the report said.

Former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz in particular has pushed hard to broaden the Army translator program, which began as a pilot project and has so far recruited more than 350 native speakers to serve as "translator aides." Of those, 77 have been mobilized for overseas duty.

But Wolfowitz has grown impatient with delays in expanding the program, said Blum, the chief of the National Guard Bureau.

The Guard is now focusing its recruiting efforts for the program in states such as Michigan, Texas and California, where there are large Arabic populations. The immediate goal is to bring in 100 additional native speakers over the next year.


The Pentagon's personnel chief, David S. C. Chu, said in a recent interview that the need is "far north" of the current recruitment figure, though he was uncertain of a specific number.

Although the search centers mostly on speakers of modern Arabic, the recruiters also hope to seek out speakers of Dari Persian and Pashtu, the two main languages in Afghanistan, officials said.

Both the Army and National Guard are offering $10,000 signing bonuses, an amount reserved for a few positions deemed essential. Officials also said the recruits could be eligible for accelerated U.S. citizenship. To further ease recruitment, the Pentagon has lifted the maximum age for recruits from 35 to 40.

'Tough time' for Army

Some suggest it still won't be easy. Among them is Jamal Baadani, a 40-year-old Marine Reserve gunnery sergeant who two years ago founded the Association of Patriotic Arab Americans in the Military. In creating the group, his objective was to bridge the gulf between the armed forces and the 3,500 Arab-Americans already serving.

"The Army's going to have a tough time," said Baadani, who lives in Southern California and was contacted to help find recruits for the program. "The Iraq war is very unpopular in the Arab-American community."


Born in Egypt to Yemeni parents, Baadani suggests that the Army may have more success by stressing service to country, a concept he often raises in Arab-American forums. "It's important for us to serve, it's our duty," he said.

Baadani, who returned last year from Yemen as part of the anti-terror Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, said the need for translators is desperate. Serving as the chief of host nation training and support, only Baadani and one other U.S. service member were native Arabic speakers. He was forced to hire nine local translators after failing to find such help within the American military.

"I put in so many requests for military translators," he said. "You have to have people who know the military lingo, know what the objectives are."

He recalled one graduate of the Defense Language Institute who scored well on exams but had trouble with local dialects in the field. Arabic has about a dozen dialects, he said.

"You can learn the basic language in the classroom," said Baadani. "But that's not what they speak on the ground. You really need the expertise of Arab-Americans."

After the requisite nine weeks of basic training, the translator and cultural adviser recruits will take another six weeks of instruction at Fort Jackson, S.C., officials said. There already have been five translator aide classes at Fort Jackson in the past year, and the Guard may send its first recruits there as early as next month, officials said.


Lt. Col. Pam Hart, an Army spokeswoman, said that while most of the graduates have already deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, every one has been tapped for some duty, serving in a variety of units that require their language skills, from medical, logistics and engineering, to infantry, Special Forces and civil affairs.

Those already in the Army program are members of the Army Reserve's Individual Ready Reserve, a pool of 110,000 part-time soldiers who neither belong to units nor routinely train. Blum said that with the additional number of Guard soldiers expected, the Army is trying to determine how the new recruits will be organized, suggesting they could be part of a detachment of soldiers - which would include just a handful - or might become part of a future company, a grouping that includes 100 or more soldiers.

Chu, the Pentagon's personnel chief, said efforts are under way to expand language programs. Besides the Middle Eastern languages, there is a need for those who can speak Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Farsi, the official language of Iran. Blum said he would like to extend the current search for Arab-American soldiers to these native speakers.