U.S. Working to Raise Literacy of Afghan Forces to 3rd Grade Level Before 2014 Turnover

By Edwin Mora | May 31, 2011 | 7:28pm EDT

Washington (CNSNews.com) -- A senior official for the U.S.-led NATO Training Mission and Combined Security Transition in Afghanistan said that national forces there are projected to have attained a third-grade literacy level by the time they take the lead for their country’s security -- in place of U.S.-NATO forces -- at the end of 2014.

In an exclusive interview with CNSNews.com, Dr. Jack Kem, a civilian who serves as the deputy to the commander,  Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, of the U.S.-led training mission in Afghanistan, said that a functional literacy level, defined as the third-grade level, among the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) will be sufficient for it to be in charge of national security in Afghanistan.

Currently, 86 percent of the ANSF recruits are illiterate, unable to read, write, and recognize numbers, according to Dr. Kem. The ANSF is currently comprised of about 290,000 personnel.

In Afghanistan overall, the literacy rate is 28 percent. The reason for the low literacy rate in that country is that many schools there were closed between 1979 and 2005, said Dr. Kem.

He said that illiteracy among the ANSF is one of the top challenges facing the U.S.-led training mission in Afghanistan.

"We find for the new recruits coming into the army and police our literacy rate is about 14 percent, about half of that [28 percent overall]," said Dr. Kem. "We're getting the lost generation because they didn't get the opportunity to go to schools because they were closed and because they hadn't opened yet."

Afghan National Police trainees with the United States Marines police mentoring program gather for a lesson in Khan Neshin, in the volatile Helmand province of southern Afghanistan, on Monday, Dec. 7, 2009. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)

"So, 14 percent is what we have for the incoming recruits and incoming army," he said. "However, what we found is, because of these literacy classes we've had, because of the numbers we've been able to take through the classes, we're now at about 30 percent literate, so we're actually higher than the average. We know also that as we continue this program and continue to do the literacy classes for the soldiers and policemen that come in and also as in air force, we know we'll have over 50 percent literacy by the end of this year, or by January 2012."

In explaining what an adequate literacy level for a professional and effective Afghan force is, Dr. Kem, said, “I think what’s acceptable is functional literacy, which is third grade.”

“We think it’s a realistic goal,” he said. “We know it will take time, but we think that’s what it takes to be a professional army and police -- at least that third-grade level.”

"If a police officer can't write his name or can't write a report, then he's really limited to just certain things, very limited skills," said Dr. Kem. "If a soldier can't even look at the serial number on his weapon, then he can't account for his weapon. He has trouble understanding basic instructions. It's not because he's stupid or because he has a problem. It's because he hasn't had the opportunity to learn to read and write -- and we find that everybody wants to learn to read and write."

The third-grade level serves as a foundation with the intent “to have educational opportunities throughout the whole life cycle or career of the army and the police,” added Dr. Kem.

He projected that Afghan forces will reach the functional literacy level by the end of 2014, which is when those forces are expected to be in the lead of their nation’s security.

“We’re going to get to 50 percent [of Afghan forces] with some level of literacy by January 2012, if we continue [with literacy training],” said Dr. Kem. “We’re working towards the 2014 date, which is the transition date so by the end of 2014 when Afghanistan will have lead security responsibility. That’s the goal that we have to get everybody that we can up to the third-grade level.”

“I believe in my personal and professional judgment we’ll be there by the end of 2014,” he later said.

The intent is for Afghans to continue the training and takeover the entire literacy program by the end of 2014.

Dr. Kem said that not reaching the third-grade literacy level by the end of 2014 will have an impact on the “quality” of the forces expected to be taking the security lead in Afghanistan and on whether the transition of security tasks will be irreversible.

“We realized just growing the force and getting the numbers was insufficient,” he told CNSNews.com. “It took more than numbers. It also took the quality, and so literacy is part of that quality factor. And so what we want is a transition that will last, a transition that will hold, that will be irreversible.”

He pointed out that literacy training “is a key component for that irreversibility and we do think we’re well on the track to do this.”

According to Dr. Kem, it takes 64 “hard, tough contact hours” to teach first-grade skills through 6-  to 8-week courses offered during basic training and “it’s a little over 300 hours to get everybody from first, second, and third grade if they progress through. And we have about an 88-90 percent pass rate when they've completed these courses."

U.S. soldiers on patrol in the volatile Arghandab Valley, Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Monday, July 26, 2010. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Dr. Kem has worked with the Afghanistan Ministry of Education (MOE) to develop the standards for the literacy classes. He pointed out that the 2,200 literacy instructors are all Afghan nationals certified by the MOE.

The training official further said that “the overarching literacy program” has cost about $88 million, which includes the facilities and classrooms. That comes out to about $33 per person, according to Kem, to teach someone basic literacy and number recognition skills to be a policeman or soldier.

"It's a rather dramatic return on the investment," he said. "For $33, we can take somebody who cannot read, cannot write, cannot add, and teach them how to do the basic skills that I think are necessary to be a police or to be a soldier."

He also said there is a trust fund where other countries can contribute funds for literacy training. The United Arab Emirates has already donated $10 million for that effort.

Dr. Kem said that 81,782 Afghan forces are currently in literacy classes, which is now mandatory as part of basic training. Mandatory literacy training was put in place in November 2009. Before then, there were less than 13,000 members of the ANSF in literacy training, which at the time was voluntary.

Literacy training is now also being provided to wounded ANSF personnel while they are in the hospital.

Providing literacy training “is absolutely essential” for an effective and professional ANSF, said Dr. Kem, adding that it also helps to root out corruption in Afghanistan.

"Another issue I think that's absolutely essential is from a corruption standpoint," said Dr. Kem. "If you don't know how to count, then you don't know how much things cost. You have no idea how much things cost. You don't know how much money you have in your hand, so you're dependent upon somebody else. ... Whenever you teach someone else to read, write and also how to count -- you teach them numeracy skills -- what that does, it gives them control. They now can control how much they're spending, control how much they have, and it has a big impact on corruption."

According to Dr. Kem, literacy training is the “number one motivator” for Afghans to join ANSF.

Dr. Kem said that top-level security personnel, such as the aviation mechanics of the ANSF, are required to attain a literacy level higher than third-grade, reaching at least the sixth-to-ninth-grade level and higher.

He also said there are military and police officers among the ANSF who have bachelor’s degrees and schooling above that level.

Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell currently is the commander for the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan and U.S.-led Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan.

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