Considering the monumental failures to build capable security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is perhaps no more relevant time to study the topic of security force assistance. In Iraq, the United States committed more than $25 billion to constructing an army of 250,000 soldiers and 600,000 other security forces. Fewer than 10,000 Islamic State fighters routed those troops, whose real numbers were much lower due to corruption and graft. Coalition forces spent an astounding $83 billion on training and equipping Afghan security forces, only to watch a near repeat of their experience in Iraq. In both cases, the victors held parades with scores of captured American equipment.
Yet despite those colossal military disasters, small pockets of host-nation forces performed admirably. The Iraqi Special Operations Forces, a force composed of two brigades known colloquially as the Golden Division or simply the ISOF, fought doggedly against the 2014 Islamic State offensive in Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, and the critical oil refinery at Baiji. At Baiji they conducted an airmobile assault seizing the key terrain ahead of Islamic State forces but were quickly surrounded. Unable to be resupplied or evacuate casualties, they continued fighting for a week, even after the Islamic State offered them free passage in exchange for withdrawing. Their retrograde operation across northern Iraq delayed Islamic State fighters enough to allow a motley coalition of American, Iraqi, and Iranian forces to block the militant group’s advance. When the Iraqis and coalition forces counterattacked, the ISOF was at the lead of every offensive. In Mosul the unit took 40 percent casualties, leaving it far beyond what is normally considered combat ineffective, but continued to attack enemy strongpoints. Simply put, without the ISOF, Iraq could have collapsed and might not be a unitary state today.
A similar situation played out in Afghanistan with the Afghan National Army’s commandos. During the 2015 summer offensive fewer than two thousand Taliban fighters routed nearly five thousand Afghan government forces, whose wholesale destruction was only prevented by the timely arrival of Afghan commandos and their US Army Special Forces (SF) advisors. In 2021 around Kandahar City, surrounded commandos battled the Taliban for more than a month until their ammunition ran out. As province after province fell, commando units kept fighting to the bitter end, with some holding the perimeter around Hamid Karzai International Airport as the United States and its allies conducted evacuations.
What was it that made those units so effective while the remainder of the effort to build allied armies was an abject failure? One of the central puzzles of why a handful of units performed better than nearly all the others was that it appeared that language training and cultural awareness of their advisors did not play as important a part as would be expected and as doctrine predicts. In the cases of the ISOF and the Afghan commandos, most of the advising forces did not speak the language of the soldiers with whom they partnered. Of those who did, nearly all spoke it at a rudimentary level. That truth exposes an important riddle that challenges a core orthodoxy within the advising community: Is language training as important as we consider it to be in producing combat effective partners?
Does Language Ability Matter? A Research Question
To answer this question, in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, my research examined case studies focused on the construction of elite host-nation forces in El Salvador from 1981 to 1991, Colombia from 2002 to 2016, and the Philippines from 2001 to 2015. For each case, I traced the causal links between five factors related to the advising effort and the resulting combat effectiveness of the partner force: (1) language training and cultural awareness of the advising force, (2) the partner force–to–advisor ratio, (3) the advisors’ ability to organize host-nation forces, (4) whether advisors are permitted to advise in combat, and (5) the consistency in advisor/partner pairing. One thread of continuity for all cases was that the host-nation forces were trained by US Army Special Forces—ostensibly experts in cultural awareness and language skills as each Special Forces group is regionally aligned and more than $51 million is spent annually on their language training.
To determine the impact of those factors on host-nation combat effectiveness, I conducted 109 original interviews of American and host-nation participants that amounted to a total of 121 recorded hours. The interviews included military and civilian personnel and ranged in rank from master sergeant to four-star general. Of the interviews with US personnel, approximately two-thirds were of individuals who had served or were serving in Special Forces assignments, with the remainder serving in various capacities that were directly involved in the oversight of the advisory missions. In addition, many of those interviewees provided me with access to unclassified and declassified primary-source documents, little of which currently exists in the public record. My analysis also included archival research, reviews of historical literature and memoirs, and examinations of official government press releases.
Language Ability and Combat Effectiveness
While the importance of language training and cultural awareness was contentious, a firm majority of interviewees indicated that those skills were not essential in building combat-effective partners. This was especially true in three cases (the Philippines, Iraq, and Afghanistan), and was reported by those who spoke the host-nation language at functional levels and above (as reflected by a score of 2 or higher in the defense language proficiency test or oral proficiency interview) as well as by those who did not speak the host-nation language. Moreover, it was reflected by those whose Special Forces group matched the region it was deployed to (as in 1st Group in the Philippines and 5th Group in Iraq) as well as when it did not (as in 10th Group in Iraq or 7th Group in Afghanistan). Two cases (El Salvador and Colombia) provided contradictory results, with most indicating that it was important to speak the language of the country where they deployed.
While few argued that language skills and cultural awareness had no value whatsoever, most interviewees indicated that they should be considered more as mission-enhancing skills than mission-essential ones. Advisors of such a mindset provided a series of explanations to justify their perspectives. Some noted that even though they did not speak the host-nation language, over a few weeks of their first deployment they were able to learn enough vocabulary to function at basic levels. Across multiple rotations, those individuals picked up additional vocabulary and cultural awareness to be able to advise more effectively. Others explained that many host-nation soldiers spoke English or were learning it, often nullifying the need for language skills on the part of the advisor. Some advisors even commented that their partners asked them not to speak their language in order to practice English, a critical skill that can have positive career and economic consequences.
Other factors also affected the importance of language skills toward advising. In countries where multiple languages were widely spoken, such as the Philippines and Afghanistan, it was particularly difficult to have adequately skilled linguists on each team. Moreover, due to the enmity between different domestic groups, speaking one of the languages spoken by a rival ethno-sectarian group had a negative impact on rapport—a critical component of advisory missions. When an Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands program officer greeted an Afghan Tajik in Pashtu, he ignored the officer and later sarcastically commented to another advisor, “It is good to see you are training your men in the language of the enemy.”
Many of the interviewees opined that having the personality and temperament to serve as an advisor was more important than knowing the host-nation language, recalling incidents where poor linguists were able to establish an interpersonal connection and rapport more effectively than those who were native speakers. Empathy, patience, tolerance, and a willingness to connect on a personal level proved to be traits that were more important than linguistic skills. Language helped, but ultimately advisors had to be able to gain trust and provide value through training, advising, and delivering what they promised.
Another factor that impacted the importance of language training on building effective partners was the stark reality that the actual language capabilities of SF soldiers are often far from the hyped skills normally associated with the regiment. Currently the graduation standard for the qualification course is only 1+ on both the reading and listening portion of the defense language proficiency test (DLPT)—whose two-part scores reflect these two proficiencies, reading and listening (e.g., “1+/1+”)—or for the oral proficiency interview (OPI). That is below the skill level 2 standard which is generally recognized as limited working proficiency. At that level of reading, one “understands short texts and exchanges, but cannot sustain comprehension of long texts . . . [and] lacks command of the language to draw inferences.” According to data gathered by US Army Special Operations Command but not publicly published, as of April 2021, across all of 1st Special Forces Command, inclusive of the five active duty and two National Guard groups and the large headquarters, there were 244 Special Forces branch personnel who scored at the 2/2 level on the DLPT or OPI in Spanish and ninety-four who scored at the 3/3 level. In other languages, the weakness was much more acute. French had seventy-four at the 2/2 level and thirty-one at the 3/3 level, while Russian had 152 at the 2/2 level and thirty-one at the 3/3 level. For the more difficult languages, the situation was dire: Arabic had forty-five at the 2/2 level and just twelve at the 3/3 level, Farsi had four at 2/2 and none at 3/3, Mandarin had nine at 2/2 and five at 3/3, and Korean had five at 2/2 and ten at 3/3. Languages spoken in Afghanistan had similarly low numbers of fluent speakers. Despite such a dearth of truly capable linguists, SF advisors were still able to produce effective partners in the ISOF in Iraq and the commandos in Afghanistan. Apart from Spanish, training SF personnel to a level where their language skills really made a significant difference has proven to be extremely challenging.
Those who reported the value of language training indicated that language was the gateway to earning rapport and trust. Others noted that language skills were important in tactical scenarios, where in the heat of combat communication had to be precise and timely. In addition, advisors who were trained in the host-nation language of a particular region were likely to either remain in that regionally oriented SF group or return to it after other assignments. As a result, they often returned to the same set of countries on future deployments, increasing consistency in advisor/partner pairing while building a deep stable of interpersonal connections and better understanding of regional history and culture.
The case study that most proved an exception to the lack of importance in language for producing effective partners was Colombia, where speaking Spanish was a mandatory component of the advisory effort. One potential explanation for this is the larger number of SF advisors who had functional-level Spanish skills (more than double that of any other language, a fact likely linked to the heightened number of native speakers and the comparative ease of learning the language). In turn, some advisors hypothesized that the high number of proficient Spanish speakers created an organizational norm to speak Spanish without an interpreter, which became an expectation on the part of the advised. At the same time, other factors such as low ratios of host-nation soldiers to advisors and consistency in advisor/partner pairing contributed greatly to the success in Colombia.
The Fungibility of Language Training
Framed in these conditions, US Army Special Forces should not return to the pre-9/11 world, where it was sacrilegious for an SF group to deploy forces outside of its assigned region. Excepting 7th Special Forces Group, which focuses on Latin America, no group has strong enough language skills to add significant value in an advisory mission. Moreover, most interviewees noted that they were able to successfully perform their advisory duties even if they did not speak the host-nation language.
In many ways, the fundamental challenge remains trying to choose the languages that SF soldiers should learn. The US Indo-Pacific Command area of responsibility alone gives insight into these challenges. As 1st SF Group’s focus, the region hosts over half the world’s population spread across thirty-six countries, sixteen time zones, and 52 percent of Earth’s surface. Over one thousand languages are spoken across that vastness, making it difficult, if not impossible, to match language skills with all the possible contingencies the group could face. While some other regions are less diverse, all face their own linguistic and cultural challenges in trying to pair advisors appropriately.
All things considered, language skills are still important, and this is absolutely not an argument against the value of language training and cultural awareness. There are considerable advantages that come from being able to speak a foreign language in advisory efforts, and those advantages grow as an individual’s ability to converse grows. Knowing another language increases advisors’ ability to empathize with the force they are advising, communicate, and build trust, regardless of whether it is the same language spoken by the host-nation forces.
The main conclusion of my research is simply this: knowing a foreign language and having experience working with other cultures is more fungible and transferrable than normally assumed. SF soldiers trained on a language from one region can be deployed to another region and pick up important vocabulary and cultural knowledge after a rotation or two. Such deployments, however, should not impede maintaining consistency between advisors and host-nation forces, as that factor appears to be much more important to producing combat-effective partners than language skills. Language is not the be-all and end-all and there are other factors that are more important to producing capable, combat-effective partners than knowing the language of the host nation.
Frank Sobchak, PhD, is an adjunct professor at Joint Special Operations University and a retired Special Forces officer. His final assignment was leading the Army effort to write the official operational-level history of the Iraq War, which culminated in the publication of the 1,500-page, two-volume set, The U.S. Army in the Iraq War. He is a contributor (Fellow) at the MirYam Institute and has been published in Newsweek, Time, the Wall Street Journal, the Jerusalem Post, Defense One, The Hill, Small Wars Journal, and the Jewish News Syndicate. His twitter handle is @abujeshua.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Petty Officer 3rd Class Thomas Rosprim, US Navy