New programs prepare troops, civilians for language and culture found in Afghanistan, Pakistan 


AFPAK soldier graduates 
More than 70 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division graduated June 11 from the AFPAK General Purpose Force detachment at Fort Campbell, Ky., after taking language courses to prepare them for Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has established two programs to help service members get a better grasp of language and culture in Afghanistan and Pakistan (AFPAK) before deploying to the region.

AFPAK Hands and AFPAK General Purpose Force (GPF) were started within the past year as satellite programs through the Defense Language Institute (DLI) and reflect a trend of enhancing knowledge of language that has been bolstered under Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then International Security Assistance Force commander.

“I believe that the senior leadership certainly gets the idea that language and culture has an integral part of pre-deployment training and is vitally important, which is a major step in and of itself,” said Steven Collins, dean of field support for DLI Continuing Education.  “It’s very much a soft skill.  It’s not something that you go out to a range and fire a weapon or learn to drive a vehicle.”

Under AFPAK Hands, mid-grade and senior NCOs, officers and DoD civilians go through three phases to learn the languages of Dari, Pashto and Urdu, which are prominent in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Phase I is a 16-week course offered by DLI at its satellite office in Washington.  When the troops deploy, they will undergo Phase II training in country from mobile DLI teams, and Phase III training would continue once they return.

The idea for AFPAK Hands harkens back to the days of the British Empire, Collins said.

“They had people in the colonial office that were constantly going back and forth to [India and Africa] and spending a career getting to know the culture, the people, the language, the region,” Collins said.  “[Petraeus and McChrystal] determined that was a key to our potential success in Afghanistan.”

The idea is that when troops aren’t in the region, they will still be doing jobs at locations in the United States or elsewhere that are still focused on that region, Collins said.  It could be intelligence work or just general staff work.

“Over really the next five to 10 years of their career as they constantly cycle back and forth to the region, we would continue to push them upwards and get them to a fairly proficient level of training,” he said.  “We would call sort of level two to three, which gets more to a professional level that can be used in almost any situation.  A very high level.”

Over the next year, three more satellite locations for Phase I training will be added to include one in Europe, he said.

The other program, AFPAK GPF, is aimed at getting one person per platoon more proficient on the Dari language over 16 weeks as well, Collins said.  Satellite programs have already been established at Fort Campbell, Ky., Fort Carson, Colo., and Fort Drum, N.Y., and seven more will be added over the next year, which will include two sites for the Marine Corps and one for the Air Force.

“It’s not at the levels we attain at the Presidio, but it’s an enormous investment of time,” Collins said.  “Sixteen weeks, six hours a day plus a little bit of homework, five days a week – that’s a lot of time, especially for these soldiers that have a very packed training schedule.”

For student selection in both programs, “what we try to accentuate is motivation,” Collins said.

“We do encourage people to look at test scores and certainly if they have had other foreign language experience, however generally what we find is that motivation is the key,” he said.  “You get a volunteer, someone who is excited about learning these languages because these are tough languages.”

Sixteen weeks of nothing but language training is an academic experience that most people have never experienced, Collins said.

“It is difficult,” he said.  “You hit peaks and valleys and plateaus.  You have to kind of push through.  Sixteen weeks is a long time.  If you translate that to a college semester, a college semester is 30 to 40 hours, and we go through that in one week.”

Instructors accentuate active listening and speaking and job-focused scenarios, Collins said.

“From the first day, [students are] up talking to each other,” he said.  “It’s language that they’re going to be able to use and establish a rapport.  At the end of the day it’s about showing empathy with the people that you’re working with from the country that you’re in, showing that you care, establishing that rapport and saving lives.  That’s the bottom line.”

The two programs are just beginning, and Collins said he is looking forward to hearing from students after they have been in the field.

“We’re really looking forward to getting some feedback from these initial sets of courses,” he said.  “We know we’re going to make some mistakes.  We know there will some things that we are going to want to change.  We’re going to get some awesome feedback and the stories will really help our motivation – ‘This saved a life’ or ‘This helped us accomplish our mission’ sort of stories.”