Language Skills for the Special Forces Operator: Access and Information in the African Permissive Environment

By: Maj Caleb Slayton, US Air Force


US and European military partnerships in Africa have been growing rapidly, as a quick glance at an AFRICOM (US Africa Command) map and a perusal of SOCAFRICA's (Special Operations Command Africa) activities over the last seven years make evident.1 In response to invitations from different African countries, and their apparent interest in forming long-term relationships, SOCAFRICA has aligned its forces in a way that encourages units to maintain regular contact with their African partners and to build progressively on these professional interactions. This means that an Army, Air Force, Navy, or Marine unit can specialize and invest in one African region or country instead of spreading its activity across multiple global regions.

Despite this alignment, many organizations—including some in the military—still have a hard time conceptualizing Africa as a continent, instead of as a single country. The diversity of African characters and personalities is most apparent in the continent's hundreds of languages, cultures, clans, and unique histories. Even today, many tribal and ethnic groups are only slowly adopting national identities inside current political boundaries. If you study and interact with Africa only in relation to political boundaries and colonial languages, you will miss the heart and soul, as well as the undercurrents of society and culture that drive everything from commerce to government to transnational threats on this expansive continent.2

Africa's Linguistic Environment

For SOF personnel in Africa, being able to identify and apply the proper language and customs to a specific social engagement can mean the difference between merely discussing, for example, Boko Haram and potentially dissecting its network. An extended conversation in Chadian Arabic, as opposed to French, can be the difference between understanding Chad's perspective on Sahel terrorist schemes and haphazardly digesting what BBC and Al Jazeera reporters already know. Why? French, Portuguese, English, and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) are second, third, or fourth languages for the overwhelming majority of sub-Saharan Africans (parts of southern Africa excluded). Colonial languages are the medium of international business, diplomacy, literature, formal interactions, and tourism. In conversation, it is as if the use of colonial languages triggers a generalized, politicized, diplomatic, media copycat version of the social environment, threat networks included. Colonial languages are oddly adept at relaying what foreigners want to hear.

Not so with local language—the heart language. When Nigerians, Cameroonians, or any others, for that matter, want to vent, speak their mind, or elaborate a cultural concept, they prefer to use their mother tongue.3 Not only is a unique store of vocabulary available to the speaker, but sometimes abstract social and cultural concepts can become watered down or misconstrued unless they are explained in the heart language. In the anthropological "iceberg" concept of culture, the culture that exists "below the water" is difficult to express outside of the local language. In Africa, ideas and personalities can be outlined in colonial languages, but they are filled in and shaded through the deeply familiar first language.

From one permissive environment to the next, I've put these language principles into practice.4 In northern Cameroon, a region now overrun by the terrorist group Boko Haram (which pledged allegiance to ISIS in early 2015), I was able to complete a research thesis on religious syncretism thanks to the study of local language. Fluent French assisted me only to a limited extent in acquiring an understanding of the general outlines of religious rituals. After studying Fulfulde and relaying the same ideas in Giziga and Masana, the trite, one-word answers in French that I had been getting from local friends and informants transformed through these languages into paragraphs of spiritual soliloquies, explanations of village religious dynamics, and the details of taboos and grievances among the diverse populations. In Senegal, Niger, and Chad, I was overly optimistic about what my French fluency could achieve. Six weeks of immersion in Wolof, Djerma, and Chadian Arabic, respectively, however, allowed me to build relationship ties that two years of study in French could never have created.

This analysis is not meant to discourage the study of French, Arabic, or Portuguese—and by no means is fluency in a local language required to begin making sincere connections with your host partner. Twenty local greetings, which can be memorized in a week, can easily translate to a five-minute discussion. Moreover, knowledge of language and culture go hand in hand. For example, I was immersed in East African culture and the widespread Kiswahili language in my youth, which meant that what I lacked in local language fluency I could make up for in appropriate social behavior and protocol.5

I find that fluency gives the speaker access to others' feelings—those intangible trends that describe the social environment.6 Two months of Fulfulde immersion, like six weeks of daily Djerma practice, won't enable a discussion of complex politics, but for those who travel from country to country, demonstrating the willingness to learn local languages serves as a relational building block. A colonial language like French, by contrast, is appropriate for broader and deeper applications, and is more conducive to operations across borders.

"Access" for the Special Forces Operator

To a SOF operator in a permissive or semi-permissive environment, which is more important: short-term access to information or in-depth access through relationships? The military culture of strict timelines, combined with SOF tactical prowess and 15 years of involvement in non-permissive environments, have corrupted the nature of foreign internal defense (FID), civil-military relations, information operations, and many other dominant SOF core capabilities. Language and culture-specific skills have become a mere data point on the operator's résumé. We have allowed tradecraft and tactics to dominate the interaction in permissive environments, making long-term engagements and sincere relationships very difficult.

This shift in emphasis means the military is missing what thousands of NGO personnel, embassy employees, and international business people take for granted: language is not simply a part of tradecraft. It is an essential tool of both everyday life and sincere interaction with any host nation and long-term partner. Rather than let tradecraft dominate our interactions, we can rely on language to provide the cultural map and access to meaningful relations that make tactical tradecraft irrelevant. Language competency offers much more than access to information or intelligence; these are short-sighted objectives. What SOF are missing in their haste to exploit tradecraft and tactical execution is a grasp of the local environment and the atmosphere of a village, region, or country, along with the development of sincere relationships that can be gained only through interchanges in the local language.

Status of Forces agreements, Acquisition and Cross-Servicing agreements, and numerous other such bilateral and multilateral contracts are important first steps in building relationships at the top level. But for the SOF operator who is building relationships with populations, a piece of paper is not always a key to access into a society. Access in sub-Saharan Africa is not a signed and dated statement; it is a continuous process of inter-relational exchanges. Generally speaking, Africa's cultures are cultures of relationships, not contracts.

Over a period of a few weeks during my time in Chad, I was fortunate to build friendships with two Chadian military security and logistics officers. Their French was weak at best, allowing us only to exchange friendly salutations and enquire about family health and other such general topics. In my endeavor to understand the political environment of Chad, I asked in French about terrorist groups in the region. Their answer was that there were none. I asked about the security situation in Chad. They said it was perfect. I asked what it was that makes Chad's politics and regional military interactions so unique. They responded, "Événements" (French for "events"). These observations were all partly true but also wholly unhelpful.

Then I broke into Arabic, and the country of Chad unfolded before me in the most intricate social and cultural fluidity.

Not only was the Chadian logistics captain able to express his thoughts, but I could also read his excitement and sense his national pride, and I was beginning to piece together an insider's picture of this very dynamic country. According to the captain, terrorism was the result of weak youth—city softies who had lost their connection to the desert and their cultural heritage. I learned about the difference between desert life, southern kafir life, and the city's entanglements. He described what it was like to travel in a Toyota convoy across international borders on desert trails, where supply trains were limited or non-existent. Finally, by communicating in Arabic, I learned about my friend, his family, and his thoughts on regional security. I was able to share my own life with him in turn. We had grown a friendship.

Americans in Africa

While I cannot speak for other non-Africans, I have noted that I and other Americans have at least three broad advantages in our cultural engagements in Africa. First, those who have limited language skills can create bonds quickly by surprising their welcoming or hesitant African counterpart with some phrases in his or her language. Second, for those who speak only English, it is not difficult to quickly find new friends who are anxious to practice their English skills and thereby become more competitive in the local job market. Finally, as a testament to Americans who have come before us, most Africans have a kindly disposition toward the United States and are eager to interact with Americans. The downside? In English-speaking countries like Uganda, the Gambia, Kenya, or Ghana, you inevitably put all your eggs in one linguistic basket and can only hope your counterpart has a favorable view of the United States or what it can "offer." If not, you may hear little that is useful. Paradoxically, local language skills can be that much more important in countries where English is a primary language. Without them, you're just like everyone else.

What about francophone countries? As an American, be aware that even your best French accent will give you away. Like English, French can be a comfortable language for highly educated political officials and foreign-trained military officers. For that small minority, the colonial language is very useful. On one occasion, for example, I was sitting in a seminar room with security elements and SOF commanders from four neighboring countries (Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria). It was impossible for this group to communicate in anything other than French and English because they were the only two common languages of the Lake Chad region. Access to more than one language in this environment was indispensable. In sidebar discussions, the partners spoke in local languages—some of which did reach across multiple borders—to describe their views of terrorism, elaborate on the local social networks, and voice the region's challenges and popular perceptions. Each linguistic interaction added another facet to the overall argument.

The fluent speaker of colonial languages often represents the political view, the state perspective. But Africa's politics do not always align neatly with international relations theory's state-centric analysis. Rather, the populations, the religious leaders, the streets, and the villages embody the most powerful variables, decoded in multiple linguistic nuances.

Outsiders to local language, politics, and culture can ultimately misread the permissive environment altogether. In one humorous example, I was on board the latest version MC-130J aircraft as we rolled into a Nigerian military ramp. Rows of Nigerian maintenance teams paused in their work as each man raised the latest model smartphone (along with a few iPads) to capture—and, no doubt, announce—the aircraft's arrival. Like any professional, these maintenance troops were giddy to see the latest factory model in their industry. The SOF aerial platform was a far cry from the scrap models surrounding the ramp that were being used for parts.

Even though the MC-130J presence was for a regional unclassified exercise, the American crew was a little wary of so much attention—a SOF presence regrettably uploaded to the cloud. But instead of hyping the instance as an operational security concern, the air crew broke through the awkward cultural barrier and brought the interaction into the human domain. After all, Nigerians speak English, and any C-130 crew anywhere in the world would naturally be curious to see the latest model. Instead of worrying about what could not be helped, we got much more enjoyment and insight from chatting with these amateur photographers, asking them to share their pictures with us and tell us their impressions.

Unless we allow ourselves to push against cultural barriers, we may be missing the sincerity and honesty of our own host partner—as well as the opportunity to transform insecurities into sincere curiosity and relationship-building.

Operators and Enablers in a Permissive yet Sensitive Environment

The SOF world has developed various official and tacit status levels for different types of operators and enablers. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with Hollywood movies, have identified the direct action tactical combat experts as the "elite force." What tactical experts do is tough. Their training is extensive and intense. For my part, I've dedicated long years of study to language acquisition and have been asked why someone like me wouldn't "cross over" to join the more prestigious club. In other words, why wouldn't someone leave the enabler world of relation-building and try for something more elite? But the reverse logic could be directed at SF operators: they already have the tactical knowledge, so why wouldn't they cross over to the side that makes a deeper, more fruitful impact on their host partners through language?

I've noticed that the best Army Rangers can demonstrate tactical acumen through swift, decisive action, but they truly prove their worth to an African partner by squatting on their heels, resting their armpits on their knees, and bantering in pidgin English with, for example, members of Nigeria's Special Boat team or Cameroon's Rapid Intervention Battalions. Africans want partners who can see beyond the threat—who can communicate in small unit tactics but also interact in sincere relationships. That is the difference between short- and long-term security development. Some would call this HUMINT—collecting or tradecraft. I prefer to call it conversation. Short-term solutions reduce interactions to tactical terms; from a long-term perspective, it's called "being human." Sometimes all the military jargon, qualification tabs, and tactical courses on communication can make us forget what it means simply to be human.

Local atmospherics and language research can easily identify a permissive environment. If you miss the cultural identifiers, you risk mislabeling the environment and misclassifying a partner as a threat. You cannot operate in the "orange" or the "red" at all times. Special forces working in a permissive environment have the opportunity on the one hand to build on local partnerships. Ignorance, on the other hand, leaves the operator with no choice but to rely on self-sufficiency, building security walls where none are needed. Exaggerated threat positions send the wrong signal within the permissive environment and are the complete opposite of SF's intent. A smile extended to those in your local environment and a respectful exchange in the local language can be more effective than razor wire and more protective than the menacing face of aircraft security. Retreating to the tactical "safe zone" can easily invite the opposite effect. Even verbal judo has its place, but languages like Hassaniya, Wolof, Songhay, Tamashek, Djerma, Hausa, Fulfulde, Luganda, Kiswahili, and Somali are security multipliers beyond calculation.

In early 2015, at a time when parts of central Africa had become less stable under Boko Haram's advances, an aircraft was scheduled to meet me and a small group I'd been working with at an airfield after dark. Through no fault of their own, unit intelligence had prepared the aircraft security element with inaccurate information on threats in the region, which influenced the crew to take a robust security posture upon arrival and parking. After observing the approach of their stone-faced security detail, I led a few of the crew members around the airfield and introduced them in the local language to the "threat" rustling in the bushes: the sandaled AK-47–toting security guards. The air crew now have the pictures to prove it: this dark airfield was an unknown factor to the aircrew, but it was far from being a threat. The seeming "threat" became an asset—those local guards represented an extra layer of security who knew the true environment leagues beyond what a transient team could ever know.

It is never wise to let your guard down completely, but it's always helpful to know what you're guarding against. The permissive environment offers SF more security assistance on which to build, especially when they are using local language and relationships. Relationships in the permissive environment also offer SF the best source of advanced warning—something a limited ring of perimeter security could never offer their camp or aircraft.

Ten years after I lived in northern Cameroon, for example, the region was threatened by violent extremism. As I followed up on the NGO personnel who lived in the now troubled region, I found out that their long-term friendships with the Fulani and their daily use of the Fulfulde language became an early warning device when the situation turned dangerous. The same was true for the coast of Kenya, where only a few short years ago Mombasa and Lamu were prime tourist destinations instead of the terrorist targets they have since become. In both of these locations, the NGO staffs were connected through deep friendships to the local residents. As the terrorist group al Shabaab developed its Kenyan offshoots, it would attack various local districts on random evenings, making them increasingly dangerous for passersby. If these NGO outsiders had not been plugged in to the local ethno-linguistic culture, they would not have been able to read the shifts in the security level. The permissive environment implies partnership-building by invitation and a level of security that provides more freedom of movement for perceptive outsiders. From Senegal to Mali to Chad, and in parts of Kenya and Somalia, the permissive environment can still be politically sensitive.7

Adopting the Long-Term Mindset

The majority of African environments allow for operator education to take precedence over tactics. Human relations should come before HUMINT. My conversations with military partners, street vendors, shopkeepers, chauffeurs, and political activists invariably take a different trajectory depending on the language spoken. Speaking Djerma, the chauffeur wants to know why I haven't found a local wife to supplement my Sahel lifestyle. Speaking Chadian Arabic, my shopkeeper acquaintance wants to assist me in finding the right medicinal herbs to cure what ails me. In Fulfulde, my military partner is excited to share with me his cultural background, the dynamics of family relationships in the Sahel, and his disgust with local politics and corruption.

Local language, combined with sincere interest, offers access to shops and markets where the vendors don't interact enough with foreigners to know how to hassle them. You will feel the curious stares of your fellow tea shop clients, unaccustomed to seeing the tubaab, nassara, or mzungu ("foreigner" or "white" in the languages of Senegal, Niger, Chad, and parts of East Africa, respectively) in such an authentic environment. In my experience, local language brings broad grins all around. It moves you from the courtyard to the sitting room. In short, the commitment to building long-term relationships will change the way you see and experience a country. Perhaps French or English could achieve a similar outcome—but if you rely only on colonial languages you'll never know what you may be missing.

SOCAFRICA's mission is to build long-term partnerships at all levels. It is very difficult, however, for education to keep pace with the rapid expansion of these relationships. Language can provide security in an unknown environment. Language can allow us to explore ideas and reap insights into actual threats, the local perception of threats, and population networks. But even this is a limited view of the SF potential offered by better cultural and language education. Language is an investment in long-term relationships where tactics become secondary and SF can again become people. ²

About the Author(s):

Maj Caleb Slayton is an active duty officer in the US Air Force.

  1. See the AFRICOM website for more information: back up
  2. About the author: Between 1983 and 2015, I lived in East and Central Africa, studying African security and languages, before finally deploying for US Special Operations Command (SOCOM). I have learned French, Portuguese, and Arabic; spent time in Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Uganda, Egypt, Chad, Niger, Senegal, and Liberia; lived in Mozambique, Kenya, Cameroon, and Tunisia; and immersed myself in the ethno-linguistic environments of Makhua, Kiswahili, Fulfulde (Fulani), Djerma, Hausa, Wolof, and Chadian Arabic.go back up
  3. In Nigeria and Cameroon, even English has a common pidgin variant.go back up
  4. A permissive environment is one where the host country's military and law enforcement have control and are willing and able to assist operations as needed.go back up
  5. Kiswahili has a wide reach, serving as a common language for millions of people in Tanzania, Kenya, and parts of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Consequently, an outsider speaking a few phrases in Kiswahili will not surprise locals as much as the use of lesser-known languages in other regions.go back up
  6. These are the "atmospherics" that we often rely on interpreters to explain.go back up
  7. This paper does not touch on the non-permissive environments found today in Libya, parts of northern Mali, and the al Shabaab–occupied regions of southern Somalia. Learning the local language of a non-permissive environment is still extremely helpful, but the caution necessary to interact and build proper relationships in such an environment requires much greater sensitivity. It is easier to correct misconceptions using indigenous language in a location where you are more of a curiosity than a potential enemy or threat. go back up
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