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US Scrambles to Find Linguists for Afghan Surge

President Obama is preparing to increase the U.S. presence in Afghanistan with some 21,000 troops and hundreds of civilian specialists in everything from agriculture to intelligence. Like the surge in Iraq, the Afghan surge will require the employment of more skilled linguists.

Language barriers are a problem

Everyone knows the problems language barriers present.

In war, it can mean the difference between life and death.

So, as the Obama administration begins increasing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, agencies like the CIA, the military, and the State Department are scouring the country looking for qualified interpreters and translators in Dari and Pashto, the primary languages there.

Ron Sanders is the chief personnel officer for all U.S. intelligence agencies. "The recurring theme here is, demand is great, competition is keen, supply is limited," he said.

Training in new language takes time

The push for linguists in languages like Arabic, Dari, Pashto, Urdu, and Kurdish came after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and increased with the war in Iraq.

But training someone in a new language - especially in a difficult one like Dari or Pashto - can take more than a year, just to get basic proficiency.

And the Obama administration does not have that luxury of time.

So government agencies have been reaching out to American ethnic enclaves - or heritage communities - to find native speakers.

Errol Smith, who is in charge of recruiting linguists for the Army, says native speakers are far more preferable to taught linguists in war zones. "A native speaker that's assigned to a commander can walk into a room with a commander and just by looking at the cultural nuances, the body language, the way the person is dressed, can determine whether it's a safe environment for the commander or not, and whether to pull his unit back, or sit down and negotiate appropriately," Smith said.

US Army offers faster processing of citizenship

The army has one tool at its disposal that other agencies do not - it can offer military enlistees a fast track to U.S. citizenship.

Sergeant X - a native Arabic speaker who remains anonymous for security reasons - enlisted in the army from her New York community to be a translator and served in Iraq.

She not only translated, but cued her commander in on cultural sensitivities, such as Muslims' aversion to dogs as unclean animals.

"We had one experience where were doing an insertion into an area and the people, they were very resilient [resistant] the first day and they didn't welcome us at all," Sergeant X said. "And so what happened, my commander, he met with the sheikh of that area. And the bottom line was, they didn't want us to use the dog search. And we were using the dog search in every house we entered."

She was sworn in as a U.S. citizen on July 4, 2007.

Other agencies like the CIA have a special hurdle. To work in the secret intelligence world, whether in the U.S. or abroad, you have to already be a U.S. citizen and pass a stringent security check.

Ron Sanders of the Office of Director of National Intelligence says many people who speak languages like Dari - which is similar to Persian - Pashto or Arabic come from backgrounds where an intelligence agency is something to be feared.

Just how many linguists the government needs for Afghanistan is classified as a secret.

But officials in the United States will likely resort to using local hire contractors in Afghanistan to make up any linguist shortfall.