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IU program provides key training for U.S. forces in Afghanistan

Increasing violence in Afghanistan makes it all the more important that U.S. troops deployed there have some familiarity with local languages and cultures, says IU faculty member Gene Coyle. And that makes training that is currently being provided by Indiana University all the more valuable.

Coyle, a retired CIA officer who teaches in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Bloomington, serves as the director when the programs are in session, during which time experts from IU's Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region (CeLCAR) and community volunteers teach the classes.

Afghanistan Training

Rahman Arman, an Afghan languages specialist with IU's Center for Languages of the Central Asian Region, teaches members of a military Provincial Reconstruction Team.

IU has provided the intensive training over the past two years for Indiana National Guard units helping to rebuild Afghanistan's agricultural sector and for Provincial Reconstruction Teams out of Fort Bragg, N.C. The training includes basic instruction in Pashto and Dari, two primary languages spoken in Afghanistan, and in matters of cultural norms and sensitivity.

"These guys have lots of challenges facing them," Coyle said. "If we can make their work just a little bit easier, then we've done our job."

The training makes it more likely that U.S. personnel will be able to work shoulder-to-shoulder with allies among the Afghan people, he added.

"American personnel working with the Afghans need to understand that it is best to find a method to solve a problem that the locals feel comfortable with, rather than always trying to teach them to do it 'the American way,' even if the latter might be more efficient," he said.

While Coyle hasn't himself worked in Afghanistan, the fact that he spent his career in the CIA, working in a variety of overseas settings, makes it more likely that young soldiers will listen to him. "When a guy stands up and says, ''I spent 30 years in the CIA and dealt with hundreds of foreign officials -- trust me, this knowledge is really going to help you,' it carries a lot more street cred," he said.

Gene Coyle

Gene Coyle

The IU program provides about two weeks of training -- enough Pashto and Dari instruction for students to learn the alphabet and a few common phrases, and basic cultural competence including religious beliefs and appropriate behavior toward women. Members of the Indiana National Guard 1-19th Agribusiness Development Team learn about Afghan farming in a training session at Purdue University.

"While one doesn't become fluent in Pashto in 10 days," Coyle said, "it teaches the personnel enough phrases to make a good impression on their Afghan counterparts -- by showing that they have made the effort to learn the locals' language."

In addition to world-class language expertise through CeLCAR, IU is fortunate to have access to Afghan natives who are graduate students or Bloomington residents, and who provide cultural training, Coyle said.

He said it's in the self-interest of U.S. personnel in Afghanistan to know all they can about the people they will be working with. "If you make a real connection with one of these Afghans, and one afternoon he comes in and gets it across to you that your guys might not want to go down that particular road . . . It's not just winning hearts and minds, but you've saved your butt from being shot off," he said.

Not that there are any guarantees of safety, given current conditions in Afghanistan. That much became clear last month when a suicide bombing killed seven CIA officers at a base in Afghanistan's Khost Province, the deadliest attack on the intelligence agency since 1983.

Coyle said reports that the bomber, a Jordanian double agent, was invited to the base for a briefing with a large number of CIA officers may not tell the entire story of what happened -- "the reason there are secret operations is they're supposed to be kept secret," he said. And he gets impatient with pundits and politicians who second-guess CIA decisions from the safety of TV studios in Washington, D.C.

"There will now be almost 100 stars on the wall at the CIA headquarters for employees who have died while serving their country," Coyle said. "Many of the entries in the Book of Honor below the stars are blank -- they served anonymously and they died unnamed.

"While all of the so-called experts and politicians are sitting comfortably stateside, second-guessing what happened at Khost and criticizing what the CIA does or does not do, hopefully the American public will remember these Americans who went out and put their lives on the line to do the best they could do to protect their country."