By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 23, 2008 - Every Afghan soldier on a base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, wants to shoot at Army Capt. Nathan Iglesias. Luckily for Iglesias -- a proficient speaker of the Afghan language Dari -- these volleys come in the form of questions, not bullets.
"For me to walk across the base 300 meters can take over an hour, because all the Afghans want to talk to me," Iglesias, an embedded trainer with the 2nd Brigade, 201st Afghan National Army Corps, said in an interview during his mid-deployment leave. Iglesias has since returned to Afghanistan, where his deployment will continue until May 2009.
Prior to his deployment in April, the captain studied Dari in an intensive 47-week course at the Defense Language Institute's Foreign Language Center here. He attributes his popularity, and his success as an intelligence officer, to his ability to speak to foreign counterparts in their native tongue.
"It's like instant rapport," the 26-year-old soldier said. "They know that I have interest in their culture. They know it's more than just lip service to them, because I know their customs, I'm familiar with their culture, their history -- I've studied them.
"This is more than just job for me," he continued. "It's a passion. And I think that that's conveyed simply by my ability to communicate with them in their own language."
Dari is one of the more difficult languages students learn at the institute. It uses phonetic components that are awkward for native English speakers, a construction that places the verb at the end of the sentence, and a writing system that bears no resemblance to the Latin alphabet. That Iglesias, a native of Pacific Grove, Calif., can converse in Dari provides an endless source of wonder to local forces.
With insatiable curiosity, Afghans ask him about American culture, and especially about religious pluralism in the United States. Some are surprised to learn that the United States has mosques and millions of Muslims who worship inside them – it debunks their belief that they would be forced to convert if they relocated to America. Others inquire about what it's like to have Jewish friends.
"I tell them 'Not only do I have Jewish friends, but I have Jewish friends fighting in Afghanistan for their country,'" Iglesias said. "And that just boggles their mind."
In fact, the captain's comprehension of Dari so fascinates Afghans that in some instances it even trumps their desire for basic necessities.
"When I go on humanitarian assistance missions, they don't even care about what I'm giving out any more," Iglesias said. "We just sit down, we drink chai together, and they have nonstop questions for me."
In addition to earning him the respect and admiration of Afghans, Iglesias' linguistic and cultural training has allowed him to communicate with his Afghan National Army intelligence counterparts.
During one conversation, Iglesias explained to Afghan intelligence operators how the U.S. military's intelligence summary, or insum, is compiled and distributed up the chain of command. To compose this daily briefing, intel officers like Iglesias aggregate intelligence from subordinate units and security units, vet and compare the various sources and create a document that informs commanders' decisions on the battlefield.
"I asked them 'What is your experience with this?' They said, 'We've never done it,'" Iglesias recalled. "So I said, 'This is what we're going to start doing.'"
The captain declassified his own insum and, in Dari, explained it to the Afghans. He incorporated some of their ideas into their layout, and what quickly emerged was the first Afghan intelligence summary, which is now a staple of the Afghan military forces.
"They were the first ones to do it in the country, and theirs would go all the way to the minister of defense," Iglesias said. "It's a daily product."
Zalmai Roashan, one of Igelsias' instructors at DLI, suggested that his former student's ability to connect with Afghans may be due to his understanding of Afghanistan's etiquette of respect. This certainly allowed him to help implement the intelligence briefing, he said.
"He was able to frame it in such a way that they were not threatened by this initiative," the professor explained. "When the reports kept on coming, and with the degree of accuracy and perhaps depth of information, everybody was happy, and so was he.
"Once you have the foothold then you – not necessarily push – but present your ideas," Roashan continued. "And that is exactly what Captain Iglesias has been doing. And I attribute the success to his ability to communicate, not only verbally, but culturally, with the Afghans."
The professor expressed pride in Iglesias' accomplishments in Afghanistan, and said the captain's ability to communicate in Dari exceeds his expectations. Roashan added that Iglesias' training has allowed him both to perform his military mission in Afghanistan and create bridges between the Afghan people and the U.S. military, an assertion with which the young captain agrees.
"A lot of people think we're very centered on ourselves, that [we think] the world revolves around the United States," Iglesias said. "If we show that we're willing to devote time and resources and energy to studying their culture and their language, that just means so much to them, as well as it would for anyone."