Afghan Army's 90% Illiteracy Rate Big Training Obstacle

American Army instructor speaks with Afghan soldier. i

An American Army instructor speaks with an Afghan soldier instructor after a graduation ceremony in Kabul on October 18, 2008. MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images
American Army instructor speaks with Afghan soldier.

An American Army instructor speaks with an Afghan soldier instructor after a graduation ceremony in Kabul on October 18, 2008.


Last week, leading Senate expert on military matters, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), said he opposed dispatching more U.S. troops to Afghanistan until the U.S. has trained more Afghan military and police.

That sounds good until you consider this fact: the Afghan military is overwhelmingly illiterate.

According to U.S. military officers, the percentage of Afghans in the military who can read and write is likely in the single digits, certainly no more than 10 percent.

So there's perhaps a 90 percent illiteracy rate. Which means that training the Afghan army won't be as easy as translating the U.S.'s English-language training materials into the Pasto or Dari anguages spoken in Afghanistan and telling Afghan recruits to study them.

A recent Associated Press story had this example:

Afghan army recruit Shahidullah Ahmadi can't read — and neither can nine out of 10 soldiers in the Afghan National Army...

..."I face difficulties. If someone calls me and tells me to go somewhere, I can't read the street signs," Ahmadi, 27, a member of a logistics battalion, said while walking through downtown Kabul. "In our basic training, we learned a lot. Some of my colleagues who can read and write can take notes, but I've forgotten a lot of things, the types of things that might be able to save my life."

Testifying before the Senate Armed Service Committee Tuesday, Joint Chiefs Chair Adm. Michael Mullen acknowledged the illiteracy problem makes training the Afghans difficult, to say the least.

ADM. MULLEN: Well I think it's —- I mean —- basically focused in a way that we know what we need — we know what they need to learn. It is a huge challenge because of the literacy rate with the Afghan soldiers and police. It's at the single digit level, sort of 9 or 10 percent.

Yet, we've got a program with the army where we've put that in place to increase their literacy level. We haven't done that with the police, we're just starting to do that with the police right now. So we know that that's going to be a requirement.

So the U.S. is in the position of having to teach literacy and military skills simultaneously if it has any hope of leaving an Afghan force behind that can be effective.

With public support declining for the U.S. involvement in Iraq, will the U.S. military have the time it would take to both teach Afghan recruits how to read as well as fight a counterinsurgency? Based on the polls, it looks increasingly doubtful.

And at yesterday's Senate hearing, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) made the larger point, that the illiteracy rate doesn't bode well for the U.S. leaving behind a viable government, economy and civil society when it finally does depart.

Chambliss, being charitable when it came to the literacy rate, said:

With a literacy rate of somewhere, let's assume it's in the teens or assume its 20 percent. That means 80 percent of the people in that country can't read and write. What'll we do — how do we leave that country in a state, non-militarily, that they can survive?



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