DARLAMAN TRAINING BASE, Afghanistan -- As it prepares to start its fifth and final year, the NATO-led $200 million literacy program for the Afghan national security forces quietly has created what is likely to be one of the most important legacies that the international military coalition will leave behind: tens of thousands of previously illiterate Afghans who can now read.
Its very success, literacy experts say, has created another need: reading material for the thousands of young recruits who complete the training each month so they can keep their precious new skills from eroding.
“Without practice they will quickly lose the skill that they have acquired, and all will be wasted,” said Nancy Hatch Dupree, who has been involved in literacy efforts across Afghanistan for the last 20 years. “This is what happens in most of the adult literacy programs on which millions of dollars are being spent.”
“Much idle time for all army and police groups could be filled with enjoyable reading of books in simple, easy-to-read language,” she said.
Illiteracy is a staggering problem in Afghanistan, where decades of war and disruptions in public education left only about 28 percent of adults able to read and write as of 2009, though NATO officers believe the number as improved at least modestly since then. Illiteracy among Afghans of military age was a major hurdle as the NATO-led coalition began working with the Afghan government to expand the country’s army and police forces. Recruits couldn’t follow basic written instructions, much less read instruction manuals for new weapons and equipment. So NATO set up a course to teach basic reading skills.
So far more than 220,000 members of the Afghan national army and police have been trained in basic reading, and more than 70,000 have achieved a level that made them functionally literate. About 50,000 more are in the program’s classes now.
Literacy instruction is expected to continue as a permanent part of training, with the Afghan government taking over the funding after NATO’s involvement stops late next year, said Lt. Col. Tim J. Isberg of the Canadian army, who is chief of NATO’s literacy and language division here.
The program’s final year in many ways should be its biggest, he said. In part that’s because Afghanistan’s security forces have finally reached full strength. Previously, commanders who’ve been under pressure to get troops in the field had been prone to send out recruits before they had completed the first of the literacy training’s three phases of literacy training.
With the security forces now at full strength, the pressure to get men into the field has slackened. “And this means that programs are easier to run, that the pace is a little more reasonable at the training centers,” Isberg said.
Still, some Afghan commanders question the value of teaching literacy, Isberg said. Some say it encourages young soldiers to desert and go find a job with their new skills. Others simply believe the soldiers need to be fighting, not in class.
Isberg, however, sees every literate soldier as an asset, even those who leave the military. “They are still a literate citizen in Afghanistan that wasn’t there before, and that helps build the capacity of the nation,” he said. “Any solider is eventually a literate Afghan citizen, and a more discerning Afghan citizen.”