By Amie Ferris-Rotman
BAMIYAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Staff sergeant Luis Badillo prefers to leave his NATO base for weekend dinners, and head instead to local cafes where he can share jokes with Afghan colleagues in their native language.
Since arriving three months ago in beautiful but impoverished central Baimyan province, the 33-year-old New Yorker has stunned his Afghan and U.S. work mates by taking up Dari, one of the country's two main languages.
"It's fantastic seeing him chat to all the guys. We wish all of them would learn," said interpreter Asadullah, of the Army reservist's efforts.
After the Sept 11, 2001 assault on New York and Washington DC., Badillo, who is a New York state police officer, escorted victims' families to the smoldering Ground Zero site.
But he wanted to see first-hand the country where the attack was planned. "I needed to come here at least once and contribute in some way," Badillo told Reuters, in a thick New York accent
"So when my unit said they were looking for volunteers to train the Afghan (police), they didn't have to tell me twice."
Once he arrived, he decided learning the local language was crucial to garnering support for an increasingly unpopular war.
His interest is rare amongst the foreign forces that have been fighting the Taliban for nearly a decade.
U.S. General William Caldwell, who has overseen all NATO training of the Afghan army and police for the last two years, said Badillo is the first U.S. soldier he met to study Dari.
Because there are no language classes for foreign troops, Badillo attended the coalition's literacy class for Afghan security force recruits at the local police training base.
With literacy nationwide under 30 percent, the courses are mandatory for new police recruits.
"As they learned to read and write, so did I," he told Reuters after quickly jotting down notes in the Arabic script used to write Dari, to approving nods from Afghan colleagues.
He peppers conversation with historical tidbits about the province's Silk Road past and the Hazara ethnic group that dominates the area.
"Once people respect you, it's so easy. You speak their language, and it's a whole different world," Badillo said.
He is fortunate to be serving in one of the most peaceful places in Afghanistan, an anti-Taliban bastion whose inhabitants are largely Shi'ite Muslim and were badly mistreated by the Sunni Taliban.
In other parts of the country, U.S. soldiers would be risking their lives by wandering in local markets; here there is not even an Afghan army presence -- Afghan police alone guard the valley once famous for towering, centuries-old Buddha statues blown up by the Taliban.
(Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Jonathan Thatcher)