U.S. literacy program for Afghan military comes up short

Auditor says a program in Afghanistan costing hundreds of millions of dollars has been undermined by poor contracts and weak monitoring

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The Defense Department has long maintained that teaching Afghan soldiers and police how to read and write is a steppingstone to their success on the battlefield against the Taliban and other insurgent forces, particularly after the U.S. Army and its coalition partners withdraw. But the effort has not been going so well, an independent government auditor reported on Jan. 28.

 “We probably won't be able to go forward in some of our … objectives if we don't increase literacy,” Brig. Gen. Thomas Putt, director of the U.S.-led military coalition's training program for Afghan security forces told reporters spiritedly at the Pentagon in Aug. 2012.

But as of Feb. 2013, roughly half the Afghan forces were still illiterate, despite the Pentagon’s expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars on a literacy program there, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, John Sopko, an independent auditor.

Moreover, the U.S. military’s stated goal of 100 percent of first grade literacy for the entire force by December 31, 2014, is probably unattainable, a report by the auditor stated. The program has been degraded by rampant absenteeism, dodgy accounting, weak oversight, and the absence of evidence that those personnel who pass the literacy tests are staying in the force, the report indicates.

These conclusions conflict with claims by the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan to the auditor last October that the U.S.-led alliance was on track to make all of the Afghan forces “Level 1” literate (equivalent to first grade proficiency,) and half of them “Level 3” literate, (third grade proficiency) by the end of 2014, when the Afghan government is supposed to take control of the literacy program.

It turns out, the audit report said, that those claims were for an Afghan force sized at 148,000, not the 352,000 personnel that the alliance now wants to equip and train before its departure.

Only one-third of Afghans can presently read or write, and the literacy rate among Afghan army recruits is even less — about 13 percent. U.S. military officers told the auditors that promoting literacy makes the Afghanis easier to train, more efficient and skilled in their work, and more knowledgeable about human rights and the rule of law. They also can keep track of their equipment better, and flag any corruption in the army’s pay practices, the audit noted.

“Literacy is a powerful capability that contributes not only to the professionalism of the Afghan forces, but to the strengthening of Afghan society,” said Maj. Gen. Dean Milner, commander of the NATO training program, in a Jan. 27 press release, shortly before the audit’s release.

Level 1 literacy translates to the ability to read and write single words, count up to 1,000, and add and subtract whole numbers. Level 3 is achieved when an individual can identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials, according to the training program. The training is meant to teach troops to read and write in either Dari or Pashto, the official languages of Afghanistan.

Officials with the training program told the auditor last October that 224,826 Afghan security personnel had been trained to Level 1 and 73,700 had been trained to Level 3. But the annual turnover rate in the security forces is between 30 and 50 percent, accounting for the persistently low residual rate. And the Afghanis have not made literacy a top priority, sending forty-five percent of their new police recruits between July 2012 and Feb. 2013 to field checkpoints “without receiving any literacy training,” the report said.

Building literacy was one of many tasks in a contract worth billions of dollars undertaken by the U.S.-led occupation between 2007 and 2010, and then it was the principal focus of  three contracts beginning in 2010 worth a total of $200 million over four years. Two of the contractors are based in Afghanistan and one, headquartered in Florida, is led by retired U.S. Army officers.

The auditor’s report found substantial fault with the terms, including provisions calling for fees to be paid according to the number of classes convened, rather than the number of trained recruits that graduated and stayed in the military. According to the audit, those conducting the training simply responded by holding “many small-size classes … for a few hours per week.” This meant, the audit report said, that U.S. government funds were “exposed to a risk of waste.”

Moreover, no effort was made to keep track of the graduates by name or military identification number, making it virtually impossible to verify that overall literacy rates in the force have increased. The training command’s response was that doing so was infeasible due to “significant limitations with the [security forces] … to differentiate and track individuals.” Literacy contractors, they said, were not obligated to become “a personnel shop” for the Afghan military.

The Western military coalition has not been watching the program closely, the audit reported, with inspections of only a fraction of the classroom sites. After an internal review by a “crisis action team” in 2012 and 2013, the coalition considered — but then abandoned — the idea of writing a new contract with more safeguards. Instead, the training program leadership has agreed, in response to the audit, to set lower goals, to try to verify learning by the recruits, and to demand larger and more frequent classes.

Initially, the coalition’s goal was to transfer the literacy program to Afghanis by last July. But the Afghan government did not support the plan that the coalition proposed, expressing particular reluctance to allow wide training to literacy level three. The program’s current priority is to train as many Afghan instructors as it can before turning over the effort at the end of this year.

“Whatever improvements of literacy within the Afghan forces that have been made up to this point, I suspect it will be marginalized when the Afghan government takes over,” said Stephen Biddle, senior fellow on defense policy for the Council on Foreign Relations. “It won’t go to zero, but it will be diminished.”

Asked to respond to the report, Major Doug McNair, a training mission spokesperson in Afghanistan, wrote in an email that “literacy training must be balanced against other warfighter training required by the Afghan forces to fight the insurgency and protect the Afghan population.”

He added: “These conditions make it difficult to forecast the literacy levels of the Afghan forces at end-year 2014.”