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Marines (hopefully) learn more than "hello" in Pashto

North Carolina military school teaches rudimentary language skills to troops going to Afghanistan.

Many Marines say Pashto is a difficult to comprehend, and they find it difficult to concentrate in the classroom. (Sara Schonhardt/GlobalPost)

CAMP LEJEUNE, North Carolina — “We’re going to go and ask questions, you know. Deushman cherda di? Where is the enemy?”

It’s 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, and members of 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (2/8) sit restlessly through another hour of intensive language training. The Marines will soon deploy to Afghanistan as part of President Barack Obama’s plan to increase troops and civilian personnel to the country, and the crash course in the native language, Pashto, is as integral to their preparation as shooting guns and running attack drills through the tree line at Camp Lejeune, the North Carolina military base where they’ve prepared for their deployment since January.

In the classroom, the soldiers concentrate, framing their foreheads with their hands, as they run through basic questions, greetings and commands: run, shoot, come, sit. The instructor — an Afghan who must remain anonymous for security reasons — asks them to repeat the words, and they emerge in a lone, deep monotone. These Marines have learned to operate in unison.

The Marines’ tongues trip over the difficult verbs (listen, help, enter), and some men shuffle through their lesson books looking bored, confused, tired. Many of them slug back cans of Monster energy drinks or 12 ounce bottles of Mountain Dew.

“People will understand if something you say comes out a little bit broken,” the instructor explains. “But you should write it down if you cannot say it in the native language.” 

Each week he provides basic language and cultural instruction to new batch of 40 Marines. The classroom training is part of a shift away from conventional tactics aimed at hunting the Taliban and reflects an administration strategy that combines the use of firepower with the need to reach out to the Afghan population.

"It's not just about firing a weapon all the time … we're not there to divide and conquer," Sgt. Anibal Paz said. "We're there to help people out and make their lives better."

U.S. military officials say the emphasis on language and cultural training provides troops with a better understanding of how to be successful in Afghanistan — and the Marines are confident it’s the right approach for an increasingly complex conflict.

"We definitely have to do both parts of the mission or we’ll be there forever," said Corporal Nathaniel Harris, referring to the need to battle insurgents while also talking with and listening to the people of the country.