More than four months after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Voice of America still is beaming its news broadcasts into that embattled country in a language that the majority of Afghans, including many resistance fighters, have great difficulty understanding.
The Soviet Union, officials here say, is broadcasting more than 21 hours a week in Pushtu and another 21-hours-plus in Afghan Dari, the two most widely used languages covering virtually the entire population.
The United States is bradcasting in neither language. Rather, the Voice continues to rely on reaching Afghanistan through its broadcast to neighboring Iran in the Iranian Farsi language.
The Soviets also broadcast in to the region in Farsi, twice as frequently as the 28-hour-per-week U.S. schedule.
While many Afghans understand some Iranian Farsi, specialists say only a relatively small percentage understand it well.
Perhaps more importantly, it is understood best by the educated elite and thus has an air of cultural snobbery that "could be self-defeating in terms of getting information to the mass of Afghans," according to Thomas E. Gouttierre, director of the Center of Afghan Studies at the University of Nebraska.
The idea, says Gouttierre, should be to develop among Afghans "an affinity" to the Voice of America "and a desire to listen." The Farsi broadcasts, he says, could produce a feeling that the United States does not really understand much about them.
The situation is criticized sharply in private by Afghan exiles here and by some former U.S. diplomats who worked in the region. It is also a source of concern and frustration to a number of officials within both the Voice and the State Department's International Communication Agency, which oversees Voice operations.
The problems, sources in those agencies say, involve money, bureaucracy, and perhaps too strong a grip on the microphone by Iranians within the Voice.
ICA officials say privately that a proposal began to take shape within the agency in January to start a twice-a-day, 15-minute news program in Afghan Dari. That has now found its way into the office of ICA Director John E. Reinhardt. An ICA spokesman said yesterday that the proposal is under consideration but that no decision has been made.
In Washington terms, the cost of getting the operation started is startling low -- $150,000 to hire six people able to put news in the proper language, make sure it is properly edited and get it on the air. Basically, it would be added to the Iranian service.
Yet money is a problem because, officials say, ICA's budget was cut by $12 million in Congress, and $150,000 is to small an amount to ask Congress to put back. Also, government-wide hiring restrictions are now in effect.
Nevertheless, officials who asked not to be identified see a lack of initiative and aggressiveness within ICA for not finding a way to begin such an important service.
"I don't know why it's taken four months to get where it is," one ICA official said of the proposal. "The decision should have been made rather quickly. A lot of people are terribly frustrated, a lot of people who feel that we as a country are not doing enough to help the Afghans."
Another official saw it as a case of "an organization that is stultified, slightly ossified and wrapped up in bureaucratic details."
Specialists say if only one language is used to reach Afghanistan, Dari is probably best and is spoken by the leadership of the resistance. Gouttierre says though more people speak Pushtu as their native tongue, the combination of those who speak Dari as natives plus Pushtus who also know Dari is probably greater.
There is, however, "no serious proposal for putting Pushtu on the air" in Voice news broadcasts, says one official, though Afghan exiles say half the population speaks Pushtu and that "the heart of the resistance movement are Pushtu-speaking insurgents," especially in the eastern border regions.
"We need VOA to help fortify the Afghans, to let them know what's going on," an exile said.
Gouttierre, who lived in Afghanistan for 10 years, says people in the country look to the Voice and England's BBC broadcasts "as the only real source of information."
He has written to ICA expressing concern that its only programming "was in a very literary form of Persian. It's stilted and certainly hard for Afghans to understand. If we are really trying to get information to Afghans, we are limiting our potential," he said in a telephone interview.
"The Persian being broadcast doesn't have the same tone, or give the feeling of security Afghan listeners need for confidence in what they are hearing," an exile said. "They hear that Iranian twang and tune it out."
Gouttierre, along with other outsiders, suspects there is an "Iranian monopoly" on VOA jobs dealing with the region and perhaps a "bias" toward Persian Farsi.
Also complicating the ICA efforts, some officials say, are questions over transmitters and frequencies to use.
Though Afghanistan is a very poor country of some 15 million people, Gouttierre says he was always surprised at how many short-wave radios could be found -- usually at least one in most family compounds or villages. Most of the radios are believed to have been bought in Pakistan.