MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And now to Afghanistan, where the Obama administration's strategy is based on the handover of control from NATO to Afghan forces that could begin as early as this year. But one challenge for NATO, as they train Afghan police and soldiers, is literacy. As many as 90 percent of the recruits cannot read. Which is why across Afghanistan, thousands of battle-hardened men are sitting down at children's desks and trying to learn their letters and their numbers.

NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Kabul.

QUIL LAWRENCE: The men look tough, some of them with streaks of gray in their beards. Many fought in Afghanistan's mountains for five or 10 or 20 years. Still, there's more than a whiff of fear in the classroom at the Afghan army training center near Kabul airport.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Until a few weeks ago, the soldiers in this class couldn't read, write or even recognize the letters of the Persian alphabet, the dominant script in Afghanistan. Now, partway into a two-month basic literacy course, they're taking turns marching up to the blackboard and reading the equivalent of "See Spot Run."

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: The literacy class is new and recently expanded from a few weeks to a more effective two months basic course intended to get soldiers and police from complete illiteracy to a functional level.

It took some persuading to make it a priority for NATO officials eager to stand up the army and police as soon as possible. But the need for soldiers to know their numbers and letters quickly becomes obvious, says British Army Major General Jeremy Burnan, who made the case recently before an audience of Afghan and NATO officials.

Major General JEREMY BURNAN (British Army): I can count my ammunition. That's life and death. I can read my commander's orders, or I can account for my equipment. That could be life and death, couldn't it?

LAWRENCE: Burnan says for the police, it's even more important. Illiterate police can't read an ID at a checkpoint or recognize a car's license plate number, let alone write a report about a crime scene. Still, it's taken nine years of international involvement here to begin to come to grips with the problem.

(Soundbite of music)

Sergeant ISMAIL: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Stepping out of his classroom for a break, 25-year-old Ismail from eastern Laghman province says he's been in the army five years, and only this week, he read his first complete sentences. He's a sergeant now, and it's important for him to be able to read and write duty rosters. He'll also be able to properly count his pay, which gets to one of the knock-on effects of an educated force - it may cut down on some common forms of corruption.

Observers say officers sometimes skim from the salaries of illiterate troops or fill rosters with the names of soldiers who don't exist.

Mr. BAZ MUHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Baz Muhammad, a 40-year-old soldier from Kunduz in the north, gets at another positive side effect.

Mr. MUHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Muhammad says he's proudly fought against the Taliban as a guerilla, but he was still secretly ashamed that he couldn't read or write his own name. Now, he can.

Officers say the benefit of a basic education may be helping them recruit police and soldiers.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul.

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