The Pakistani media is reporting that US “nation building” in Central Asia is stalling because there are only 18 US State Department officers who are proficient in Pashto, the predominant language in Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan. This is in spite of eight years of emphasis on building a cadre in that language in the aftermath of 9/11. In fact, only 30% of State Department officers worldwide are proficient in the language of the country where they are stationed, which would include the Spanish speaking world and Western Europe.
Also, the concept of proficiency is in itself a bit slippery. It is not fluency. The US government generally rates language ability on five levels. A five is native fluency. An officer is considered proficient when he has a three, which permits general conversation in social settings but does not allow any discussion that is detailed or complicated in nature. Most language trained officers are threes, and frequently the threes are themselves somewhat bogus in that there is pressure in the system to rate officers proficient so as not to hurt their career prospects. In my experience, diplomats and intelligence officers from Europe and the former Soviet Union were nearly always much better prepared in languages than their American counterparts. Even diplomats from third world countries could often speak English and French fluently as well as the language of the country where they were posted. Part of the problem is that the only foreign language taught widely in the US is Spanish, often poorly. Many colleges no longer require a foreign language capability to graduate. Its tough to manage an empire without being able to speak to the peasants.