GREENOUGH – When the Afghan police commander disrespected the mullah and the village elder in a round of negotiations, a terse argument broke out in the Dari dialect, placing five members of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces in a difficult position.

If they wanted to continue negotiations on more respectful terms, the mullah insisted, they would have to return the following day, this time without the Afghan commander.

The scenario played out last week as the soldiers engaged three Dari-speaking natives of Afghanistan in a round of “iso-immersion” training in the University of Montana’s Lubrecht Experimental Forest.

Here in the snowy woods northeast of Missoula, U.S. troops attending the Department of Defense Critical Language and Cultural Program complete their immersion training in an isolated setting, punctuating more than 25 weeks of rigorous class work.

“In Afghanistan, one of the biggest things you can do to show respect is a proper introduction,” said a soldier known as “Nick” in the class. “When you have a police commander who thinks he’s above everyone in the village and he throws that respect away, it generally causes more problems for the Americans trying to support peace and stability.”

Because the program involves Afghan natives with family at home and U.S. troops heading overseas to play special roles on the ground, use of their names isn’t permitted for security reasons.

But the soldiers, who have already completed multiple tours overseas, say the program’s scenarios are spot on. The immersion training is essential to U.S. efforts in the region, they believe, and their efforts to build rapport with Afghani citizens hinges on their understanding of the culture.

“You can imagine if we had a war in the U.S. and a bunch of people showed up thinking they can fix everything when they didn’t look like us, didn’t speak like us and they had to bring a local American around to translate for them,” said Nick. “There’s this huge disconnect over there. This program works wonders for our jobs so we can go and build rapport more quickly without the aid of an interpreter.”

***

While the five Special Forces soldiers complete their isolated immersion training in the Montana woods, another group of students is coming up behind them, training in the program’s classrooms back in Missoula.

Native instructors from Morocco, Jordan, Iraq and Afghanistan walk U.S. military students through months of language and cultural training. The homework is intense, sometimes involving long vocabulary lists, new verbs, proper inflections, and days reviewing the complicated history of the region.

“When you go into a country like Iraq, you have to understand where the people are coming from – what the country is like, why does it exist, why are they so upset with us?” said cultural instructor Owen Sirrs. “You need context to understand their point of view, which is very, very important.”

Instructors from the region bring that context to both the classroom and the field. An Afghan woman, who goes by “Shugla” and teaches Dari and Pashto in the program, has her own bitter memories of growing up under Taliban rule.

While most women support education in Afghanistan, she said, attending school wasn’t permitted before the U.S. intervened in the region. She supports the DOD program at UM and its efforts to educate American troops on her country’s customs and culture.

“Now is much better since the (U.S.) came to Afghanistan,” said Shugla. “Women are able to work and get an education. They can go and work and go outside. Women can go to school or university to be better. During the Taliban there was no chance for women. We do not like Taliban, but now is getting much better.”

Each of the program’s Afghan instructors has his or her own memories of the Taliban and their country before the war. Men were forced to grow beards, work was hard to come by, and punishment was often swift and unfair.

One instructor, known as “Faeez,” teaches in the program to help make Afghanistan a better place. He talks about the beating his wife endured by the Taliban one day at the market. Her crime came when she lifted her burqa to get a better view of some cloth she wanted to purchase from a vendor.

“The Taliban beat her on the back, saying why did she remove the burqa from her face,” said Faeez. “Not only me, but most Afghanis really welcomed the U.S. coming to Afghanistan.”

***

Despite Montana’s rural location, the program at UM has managed to compete on a national scale with similar programs at the University of Indiana, North Carolina, San Diego State and Georgia.

Last year, the DOD awarded $6 million to its five critical language programs, including that at UM. The school received $2 million, the largest share of the funding, allowing it to immerse U.S. troops and diplomats in programs that last anywhere from 40 hours to a full year.

Programs based on video teleconferencing will soon broadcast from Missoula to Fort Bragg and Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. A program geared toward national ROTC cadets known as Project Global Officer is under way. Montana’s own National Guard troops also have benefited from the program before mobilizing for overseas training.

“The bottom line is, we’ve grown to become the best language and cultural course in the U.S.,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Donald Loranger, director of the University of Montana’s program. “We’re the school of choice for people who want to get fluent, which you need to do to win the hearts and minds of people.”

Loranger looks on with Chris Marlow, the program’s deputy director of finance and administration, as the Fort Bragg soldiers work out a new scenario with the Afghan natives speaking in Dari and nothing else.

The result of four months of intensive training, Nick places his language proficiency at 75 percent. It’s far more than he knew when he arrived in Missoula back in August, when he spoke only a handful of introductory phrases gleaned from his first tour overseas.

“When I first went over there, I spoke a few words here and there,” he said. “Even a few phrases worked wonders. But being able to converse is huge. I can’t wait to go back and see how I do.”

Reporter Martin Kidston covers the University of Montana, and military and veterans affairs, for the Missoulian. He can be reached at 523-5260 or by email at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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