The War in Afghanistan
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|Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, IV||November 28th 2011|
Journal of International Security Affairs
On that score, much remains to be done. Great strides have been made over the last two years, but simply handing a weapon to an individual does not make him a soldier or policeman. Building a professional and lasting Afghan national security system in the wake of conflict is a mission without equal. And of the many challenges facing the Afghan leadership in Kabul, among the most debilitating is the Taliban legacy of illiteracy, which plagues the vast majority of military-aged men.
Recognizing this challenge is not obvious, and building human capacity is not a traditional function of military commands. In fact, when NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan was created two years ago, we did not consider literacy to be an essential component of counterinsurgency. The late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke told us otherwise. He stressed that we would need to address illiteracy in order to successfully build the Afghan army, air force, and police. The tasking was counterintuitive; as a military command, we wanted to put rifles—not books—in the hands of the Afghans. After all, the international counterinsurgency campaign needed armed men to combat the Taliban. The U.S. surge needed to be supported by an Afghan surge.
But in spite of our initial apprehension, it did not take long before the true crippling effects of illiteracy and innumeracy became fully evident in the Afghan force. As we trained, equipped, and fielded over 110,000 new Afghan soldiers and patrolmen, we learned that Afghans needed and desired the educational opportunities denied them during successive decades of war. The statistics are striking: only about one in every ten recruits from Afghanistan’s “Lost Generation” enter the force with any level of literacy. They cannot even count to ten or write their names. But although recruits are vastly illiterate (officers and NCOs are literate), they are intelligent and motivated to learn.
Taking Ambassador Holbrooke’s advice in the spring of 2010, NTM-A introduced a literacy program at military and police training sites throughout Afghanistan. Today, about 3,000 Afghan teachers are delivering literacy training to almost 85,000 soldiers, airmen, and police every day. The effect is evident; 120,000 have already completed some form of literacy training and their ranks grow monthly. At the current pace, for just $30 per individual, the literacy rate among the army, air force and police will soon be twice that of the general population.
In retrospect, literacy has become the essential enabler supporting the bravery and warrior ethos of the Afghans. A literate soldier must be able to read maps to plan operations; a numerate artilleryman must have mathematics skills in order to compute firing tables; and an educated policeman must be able to interview people and write investigative reports. As Afghan security structures formalize and professionalize through a comprehensive training and education program, the gap with insurgent groups widens and the trust of the people they have volunteered to protect increases.
Not only do the recruits appreciate the immediate impact of an education, but they also recognize the benefit that will continue with them for the rest of their lives. Education is something that will elevate them in the view of their families and enhance the respect they are accorded in their villages. Literacy is a lifelong skill that can never be taken away from them. One recruit told us, “The Taliban wanted to keep me in the dark. The Army is teaching me to read and write so I can come into the light and make my own decisions.”
Through literacy training, soldiers and police can count their pay for themselves, and be armed against predatory corruption. Further, polling and anecdotal evidence suggest that literacy training is a significant recruitment and retention incentive—a clear sign that Afghans reject the dark days of Taliban rule. For example, one of the greatest status symbols in Afghanistan today is a pen in a shirt pocket, which signifies that the bearer is an educated individual. Most striking is that this status is not something that can be given or granted; it must be earned. This not only has long-term social implications; literacy arms Afghans with the tools to reject violent extremism.
The education and professionalization of the Afghan military and police is in stark contrast with the efforts of Afghanistan’s enemies. Where literacy training is now uplifting Afghan human capacity and empowering individuals with opportunity, those committed to intimidation and violence are attempting to destroy the potential of a nation. Through literacy, Afghan soldiers, airmen, and police can better serve and protect their country to prevent the return of those committed to violent oppression and the use of terrorism. As literacy rates rise, professionalism improves, and Afghan human capacity is realized, insurgent groups and their terrorist allies will increasingly look foreign.
Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, IV has served as the commanding general of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) since November 2009. This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of the Journal of International Security Affairs.