Arabic speakers at U.S. embassy in Baghdad increase from six to 10

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jun 21 13:24:46 UTC 2007

June 20, 2007 Arabic speakers at U.S. embassy go from six to

Last December, we learned that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad employs 1,000
people, of which six speak Arabic fluently. (One of the more obvious
recommendations from the Iraq Study Group was the suggestion that the Bush
administration "accord the highest possible priority" to language training.
To which officials everywhere responded with a collective, "Duh.")

The good news is the number of Arabic speakers at the U.S. Embassy has gone
up 66%. The bad news is, when you start with six, that kind of
increase is still
pretty small<>

Of the 1,000 U.S. employees at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, only 10 have a
working knowledge of Arabic, according to the State Department.

That is still a slight improvement from last year when, according to the
Iraq Study Group, six people in the embassy spoke Arabic.

A 2006 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report noted the shortage of
speakers of Arabic, which the State Department classifies as "superhard," is
acute at U.S. embassies in the Muslim world.

Just as an aside, "superhard"? *That's* the formal description from the
State Department? What comes after that, "wickedhard"?

I digress. In April, the State Department had started taking action to
correct some of these problems, but they apparently haven't gotten very far.
According to the GAO, "more than one-third of public policy diplomacy
positions at Arabic language posts were filled by people who did not speak
the language at the designated level."

In December, confronted with questions about this, Tony Snow
"[Y]ou don't snap your fingers and have the Arabic speakers you need
overnight." I'd add one thing: if you're the president, you actually
*can*snap your fingers and have the Arabic speakers you need
There are two angles to this: U.S. Arabic speakers and local Arabic

When it comes to Americans, the U.S. government has trained plenty of
Arabic-speaking linguists who don't mind learning "superhard" languages and
don't mind serving in Iraq. The U.S. government, of course, sent them home
because they're gay <>. (In all,
linguists have been returned from Iraq because of their sexual
orientation. That's nearly six times the total number of Arabic speakers
currently working in the U.S. embassy.)

And then, of course, there are Iraqis who speak Arabic and who might be
willing to help. That seems less likely

In the four years since U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein, hundreds of
Iraqis have gone to work as interpreters - "terps" in soldiers' parlance -
for an American force that has few Arabic speakers and little familiarity
with local customs.

The job is risky: Many terps - there are no official figures on how many -
have been hunted down and killed by Sunni Muslim insurgents and Shiite
Muslim militias, and an unknown number have quit their jobs after receiving
death threats. Eighteen, including some from Afghanistan, have been given
sanctuary in the United States, according to figures compiled by the office
of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

But dozens, some with knowledge of sensitive U.S. operations and
infrastructure in Iraq, have been denied entry. No longer assets to the
American war effort and shunned as traitors by their communities, they've
fled to Syria, Jordan and other countries.

The mind reels.

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