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Speaking the Language

To move beyond merely rhetorical question-asking, who is the highest-ranking American official who speaks the languages they use in Afghanistan? Moving quickly down the list, it seems that neither the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of Defense, nor the Secretary of State makes the cut. Nothing in the background of Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake or Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl (oddly, State and DOD slice up the world differently) suggests that they do. Nor does Richard Holbrooke or Ambassador Karl Eikenberry or General McChrystal (or, for that matter, General Petraeus).

The leading contender that’s been suggested to me is Puneet Talwar, who does Iran-Iraq issues at the NSC and I’m led to believe knows Persian which (going under the name Dari) is used as a lingua franca in Afghanistan. But he works at a different desk. Spencer thinks Vikram Singh, who works for Holbrooke, may be the person I’m looking for.

At any rate, Americans are famously poorly endowed with foreign language ability, and the issue becomes especially acute as our national security policy becomes more-and-more focused on places like Afghanistan and Somalia rather than France and Germany.

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