By Air Force Staff Sgt. David Flaherty
Special to American Forces Press Service
Nov. 2, 2009 - Air Force Maj. John Loftis has a Pashto name, Esan, and people frequently ask him what it means. The public information officer is deployed to Forward Operating Base Smart, a small military compound located in the heart of Qalat, a southern Afghan city. He leaves quite an impression with the Afghan community where he lives and works as a provincial reconstruction team member, even if that community happens to be in the middle of a war zone.
While on foot patrol, Loftis is bombarded by swarms of Afghan children. Laughing and smiling, they follow him for blocks. He's made friends with every Afghan on base. Whether they're a guard or a local contractor, they're all on a first-name basis with him.
In a war where gaining public support is vital to combating the insurgency, Loftis' fluency in Pashto, southern Afghanistan's most common language, allows him to engage with the Afghans and earn their trust.
"When the Afghan people see that an American is speaking Pashto, they're more inclined to open up to him, and that's the reason why he's so successful," said Gov. Mohammad Ashraf Nasari of Afghanistan's Zabol province. "He can go among the local population and get their impression of U.S. forces. He can do this better than any other soldier, because he speaks their language and knows their culture."
Assigned to a provincial reconstruction team whose mission is to bring development, governance and security to Afghanistan, Loftis has the unique opportunity to communicate daily with his Afghan neighbors.
While reconstruction team forces rarely venture outside the compound walls without a translator, Loftis' ability to speak directly to Afghans allows him quickly to form a rapport with the local people that immediately breaks down cultural barriers.
He learned this firsthand while on foot patrol through the streets of Qalat. As motorists were stopped for the foot patrol to pass, drivers started to become incensed at the delay. When Loftis noticed their frustration, he approached the drivers and said in perfect Pashto, "Please excuse the delay. We have to do this for security, and we appreciate your patience."
"The look on their face immediately changed," Loftis said. "They went from a stone-cold stare to a huge smile, so it really smooths things over when you do something as simple as speak to them."
Loftis learned Pashto in 2007 after being selected to become a regional affairs strategist, a secondary career field with a development program that includes formal cultural education and training. In the program, Loftis attended a year of South Asian studies at the Naval Postgraduate School and a year of Pashto language studies at the Defense Language Institute, both in Monterey, Calif.
"I was happy when I learned he could speak Pashto, because I knew I could come to him with a problem," said Nazar Mohommad, a base gardener, through a translator. "I know him now, and I look to him as a friend."
Even though Loftis admits he sometimes has trouble understanding some Afghans because of their fast-paced vernacular, that hasn't swayed him in his ongoing attempt to make new friends.
During Eid ul-Fitr, an Islam holiday, Loftis went around to all the guard towers to speak with some of the Afghan guards. "If you think about it," he said, "they were sitting all by themselves for hours on this major Islam holiday. I figured that if I were someplace by myself on Christmas, I would want somebody to come around and share the moment with me."
Loftis said his major focus is to communicate that coalition forces are here for Afghanistan's long-term stability. And he communicates that idea better than any translator.
And Loftis' Arabic name? It means "The Quality of Being Generous."
(Air Force Staff Sgt. David Flaherty serves in the 22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.)