Afghan Military’s Illiteracy Complicating U.S. Departure

The U.S. effort to extricate its forces from Afghanistan is complicated by the challenge of teaching mostly illiterate Afghan troops how to carry out independent military operations.

Training Afghan troops to operate on their own and to use sophisticated weaponry is especially difficult in a country where almost nine out of ten people can’t read or write, according to U.S. military officers in Afghanistan and Pentagon officials.

Illiteracy among Afghans “is a huge challenge and one that we have confronted for five or six years,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in an interview this week in his Pentagon office. Preparing Afghan troops for military roles must include “basic literacy training -- training people to count and write basic sentences,” he said.

President Barack Obama said after meeting with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai this month that “coalition forces will move to a support role this spring” as “Afghans take the lead.” Obama has pledged to remove most of the 66,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

As of the end of September, only one Afghan brigade out of 23 was ranked as capable of operating independently even with the help of advisers, according to a Pentagon report to Congress in December.

Afghan troops are held back from operating independently by limits on “their ability to sustain themselves,” U.S. Major General Robert Abrams, regional commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Kandahar, told reporters in December, when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited the country.

Planes, Mortars

While Afghans have a system for conducting operations, “it’s challenging them because as you know 85 percent of the population of Afghanistan is illiterate,” Abrams said.

At the Pentagon, Carter is overseeing efforts to step up the U.S. transition by sending the Afghans transport planes, mortars and armored vehicles.

Carter said the Pentagon is providing Afghans with four C-130 transport planes built by Lockheed Martin Corp. for airlift within the country, in place of the C-27A made by Alenia Aeronautica SpA of Italy.

The C-27A airplanes were bought “at a time when Afghan airlift was not much of a priority,” Carter said.

Afghans need the C-130s from Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed because their “commanders need to be able to go around the battlefield,” Carter said. The planes will be provided from the current U.S. fleet, he said.

Mortars, Vehicles

The U.S. also is providing the Afghan military with mortars and armored vehicles, Carter said.

Mortars will help Afghan troops “to do their own indirect fires” as the U.S. scales back air support, Carter said. The “Afghan leadership is familiar with mortars from the Soviet period,” he said.

The Pentagon also is working “through acquisition issues” in order to provide Afghanistan with a light-attack plane, Carter said.

The Pentagon is providing some armored vehicles from its fleet of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, as well as a new security vehicle “that we are procuring especially for their purpose,” Carter said.

The new Mobile Strike Force Vehicle is made by Textron Inc., based in Providence, Rhode Island, according to James Swartout, a spokesman for Carter.

The U.S. may leave behind some of its MRAPs -- a version of which was designed especially for the rugged Afghan terrain -- when its forces withdraw from Afghanistan, Carter said.

Mobile Teams

In addition to supplying equipment, the U.S. is sending mobile teams to train Afghans in using and maintaining the hardware, Carter said.

To sidestep the illiteracy challenge, the U.S. is working with “elite units that operate specialized equipment,” Carter said. Some of these units have “literacy and pre-existing skills that are helpful.”

Some U.S. trainers are likely to remain in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 withdrawal date, Navy Commander Bill Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an e-mail. That means Afghan troops won’t have to “absorb all the training for operations and maintenance of this equipment before 2014,” he said.

The NATO-led coalition force will have invested about $200 million in literacy programs for the Afghan security forces by 2014, Canadian Captain Karina Holder, a spokeswoman for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s training mission in Afghanistan, said in an e-mail. The program began in 2009.

Literacy Levels

The goal is to have 50 percent of Afghan security forces reach Level 3 literacy, Holder said. Level 3, the highest of the three literacy levels, translates into an ability to read, write and comprehend short paragraphs, as well as add and subtract using six digits and to multiply and divide with three-digit numbers, she said.

As of September, about 168,000 Afghan security forces personnel had passed a Level 1 literacy program; 64,386 had completed Level 2; and 42,177 finished Level 3, according to the Pentagon’s report to Congress in December.

The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction yesterday said it was starting an audit of the literacy program to assess whether it was meeting its goals.

“Illiteracy in the Afghan National Security Force remains a major obstacle to effectively developing a capable and self-sustaining force that can operate independently and defend the Afghan people,” the watchdog agency said in its quarterly report.

Audit’s Focus

The audit will assess whether the three contractors hired to operate the program provided “qualified instructors and services, the extent to which” the U.S. monitored the contractors’ performance and training results, and whether “the contracts are meeting the goal of providing basic, sustainable levels of literacy.”

Getting Afghan commanders to send their troops to classrooms was an obstacle, the Pentagon said in its report. “Convincing local commanders to provide forces with sufficient time to complete literacy training is a primary challenge,” according to the report.

At ISAF’s Regional Command South, based in Kandahar, coalition forces are trying to reach the absentees through a “radio-in-box” literacy program, Army Lieutenant Colonel Ben Garrett, spokesman for the command, said in an e-mail. Classes are broadcast over local radio stations to help military officers as well as the local population, he said.

Even with all these efforts, improving literacy “takes time,” Abrams, the regional commander said. “We have to get the right people with the right education, the right intellect and skills to be able to run these systems. It is today one of the biggest challenges and frustrations.”