Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A push for more Pashtu speakers

This article reveals a substantial weakness in Britain's effort in Afghanistan: a lack of qualified Pashtu speakers. The British armed forces and diplomatic service have never had many people who could speak the language - I would be surprised if more than a handful speak Pashtu really fluently. Ironically, the "fall" of the Pashtu-speaking Taliban in 2001 probably reduced the pressure to produce more Pashtu speakers, as it was assumed that other Afghan languages like Dari might now predominate. Instead the need has never been greater.

Part of the problem was also a lack of qualified teachers and attractive textbooks. Until 2001 (indeed perhaps it's still the case) diplomats learning Pashtu made do with a grammar that was first published at the turn of the twentieth century prompted, as its author makes clear in the preface, by the experience of the second Afghan war - which Britain won.

The dividend of speaking Pashtu was set out shortly before that war by SS Thorburn. He wrote in 1876:

"The delight of a hill Pathan in being addressed by a Sahib in his mother Pashto is always genuine and irrepressible; his whole face, which ordinarily wears a fixed touch-me-if-you-dare almost defiant expression, breaks into one broad grin as he wonderingly asks you, "Eh, you talk Pashto, how did you learn it?" It is just the sort of question a Highlander would ask did a Southerner address him in Gaelic. The gain in personal influence, besides other advantages, which an ability to converse directly with the people gives an Englishman amongst Pathans is so obvious that I need not dilate on it."

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