FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — Fort Campbell soldiers who are training for new advisory roles in Afghanistan celebrated the Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr (ayd ahl-FIH'-tur ) on Wednesday by sharing a meal, conversing in Afghan languages and learning traditional dances and games.
Thousands of troops from the Tennessee-Kentucky state line will be returning to Afghanistan this year, but their roles will be shifting from combat skills to advising and assisting Afghanistan troops and police.
Hundreds of soldiers were selected to go through a 12-week language immersion program at Fort Campbell and they gathered to try out their skills during the holiday celebrated at the end of Ramadan.
Everyone from the newest privates to the highest-ranking officer on the post showed off their skills as ambassadors, rather than war fighters, as they looked to find common ground between two cultures still struggling to understand each other after years of fighting side-by-side.
Even the division's commanding general, Maj. Gen. James McConville, gave a short speech in Dari, the main language spoken by Afghan government officials and the Afghan Army. This came after the soldiers shared a meal of vegetable kabobs, rice and lamb with their Afghan language instructors.
McConville said later that Afghan people and troops appreciate that American soldiers will be arriving in the country already able to make introductions and are familiar with Afghan cultural norms.
"You can see their eyes light up," he said. "It means we care enough about you, or we respect you enough, that we are willing to take the time to learn your language and learn your culture."
The trust between American and their Afghan partners has been strained in recent months due in large part to a spate of attacks on NATO forces by Afghans soldiers or policemen. Although it is not always clear what prompts those insider attacks, McConville said this kind of training may help to prevent cultural clashes.
"It is very important that we understand their language, their culture and maybe some of the things that offend them that may lead to some situations that are not in the best interest of either of our forces," he said.
Most of the soldiers will not arrive already fluent in the languages, but they are learning basic introductions and phrases that will be applicable to the jobs they may be doing in Afghanistan, such as how to ask to search a home or a vehicle, or ask about insurgent activity.
During one skit, soldiers sat cross legged on rugs and cushions and played out a typical meeting between soldiers and Afghans in Pashto, another language widely spoken in Afghanistan. The soldiers asked one another questions about security threats in a particular area, and discussed whether more trained soldiers were needed.
"These young soldiers in some ways are diplomat warriors," McConville noted. "Hopefully they will never have to fire their weapons if they can use these language skills."
For Pfc. Jessica Jackson, a 19-year-old military police officer, she thinks the training will give her an advantage when approaching Afghan women.
"Being able to speak with females, I think I will gain more respect and they will be willing to work with you and cooperate," she said. "I will be more valuable to my team because I will be a female who can speak the language."
She said she asked a lot of questions of her Afghan language trainers about how women should be treated, so not to offend them.
"I enjoyed learning about the culture and am still so fascinated by it," she said.
Pfc. Sean Barnes, 19, with division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, said they have been studying the languages for six hours a day and he's hopeful that he will one day be proficient.
"Obviously you have the language barrier, but you also have a huge cultural barrier, and this class is helping me out in that way by giving me insight into Afghan culture, and some of their history," he said.Comment on this story
He said the instructors are helping soldiers like him overcome stereotypes about Afghans before they arrive in the country.
"Talking to the instructors and getting to know them on a personal level really helps to put that into perspective," he said. "They are just like us, but are raised in a different place with some different moral guidelines."
Malalai Yawar, one of the Afghan instructors, watched with admiration as her students introduced themselves in Pashto to a crowd of language instructors.
"The Pashto language is very complicated," she said. "That made me really proud to hear them speak with good pronunciation."