The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has no Pashto speakers and only a third of the Dari speakers it deems necessary to operate in Afghanistan, almost eight years after Britain went to war there.
According to the FCO’s own assessment, it requires no Pashto speakers to work effectively in Afghanistan, even though it is the main language of Helmand province, where Britain is fighting a fierce insurgency.
Chris Bryant, a foreign minister, recently told parliament the FCO reckoned it required six “operational” Dari speakers to work effectively in Afghanistan. But only two diplomats are proficient at this level. Dari is one of Afghanistan’s two official languages.
The severe shortage of diplomats trained in Afghanistan’s main languages shows Whitehall has put too little effort into supporting the military campaign, said members of the Conservative party.
“British troops have been in Afghanistan for eight years,” said William Hague, shadow foreign secretary. “The fact that, within that period, the Labour government has only trained two people to speak a local language says enough about their commitment to the campaign.”
He added that the language barrier prevented diplomats from “following up on our troops’ successes with the vital work of winning hearts and minds”.
The shortage of language skills comes in spite of efforts at the FCO to move away from state-to-state diplomacy, with a shift from Europe towards the Middle East and Asia.
While few diplomats have mastered Farsi or Pashto, the FCO is brimming with French, German and Russian speakers. It has 1,248 operational German speakers but only requires 35, and 302 Russian speakers when its target is 50.
Many diplomats prefer to use translators in Afghanistan because they are often sent for short tours, and learning the languages is not seen as a great benefit to their career.
The FCO said: “Language training requirements for key staff working in Afghanistan are kept under regular review. The predominant language of government is Dari, of which we have a number of speakers.”
It added that five staff had completed basic Pashto training and two more were being trained. In addition, 23 staff had finished a Dari course. Some diplomats might have decided not to take a test or register their level of ability, the FCO said.
There are Pashto speakers in the military, but most are far from fluent. There are two “operational” speakers, 27 “professional” speakers, and 86 proficient at a functional level.
On hearing the figures, one former government aide joked: “We’ve been there for eight years – the Afghans have had plenty of time to learn English.”