From Luis Martinez:
Two weeks ago, NATO officials in Afghanistan were proudly noting how the goal of reaching 134,000 soldiers in the Afghan Army had been reached three months ahead of schedule. Today the commander of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell IV, acknowledged that reaching next year’s goals will present challenges, given the high levels of attrition among Afghanistan’s Security Forces and the extremely low rates of literacy in Afghanistan that have led his command to become educators, as well as military trainers.
Briefing from Afghanistan, Caldwell told reporters at the Pentagon today that he believes that in order to reach the goal of 56,000 more soldiers and police by next October, his command will have to bring in 141,000 new recruits to compensate for those that leave the force. That’s almost the current size of the Afghan Army.
As ABC News’ Martha Raddatz found out recently during her visit to Afghanistan, the high illiteracy rates among Afghanistan’s security recruits are staggering.
Caldwell estimates that only between 14 percent and 18 percent of Afghan recruits can read or write, and he acknowledged today that he underestimated how important a basic education would be towards making the Afghan Security Forces an enduring professional force.
He says providing a third grade education is key for making a professional soldier carry out such basic things as reading the serial number on his weapon. It also has an anti-corruption element, because soldiers and policemen are now able to read their paystubs.
To that end, there are currently 27,000 Afghan security forces receiving literacy training. Their number will grow to 50,000 by December and 100,000 will be involved in full-time literacy training by next June. Some 250 Afghan instructors have been brought in for the literacy training and their numbers will grow to 1,000 as the program moves forward.
“We're not trying to make high school graduates,” Caldwell said. “Our intent is to give them enough so that they have the ability to do certain key things for the professionalization of the force — bring them up perhaps to a first-grade, third-grade level. But we do know that literacy is an essential enabler of this whole professionalization.”
An education will also help Afghan troops fight corruption, or what they perceive to be corruption. For example, Caldwell cited the recent experience of a pay team that visited an Afghan Army unit in northern Afghanistan. The team polled 100 soldiers in the unit and found 90 of them claimed they had not been paid.
After a quick investigation of pay records, it was determined that because NATO had switched to an electronic pay system, salaries were being sent to accounts created for the soldiers, but because they were illiterate, they could not read the bank statement nor operate ATMs to get their money out.
Caldwell says some literacy training could have helped those Afghan soldiers realize they were being paid and helped them build confidence in their government.
The high attrition rates for Afghan Security Forces are another challenge to be overcome. The Afghan Army has a 23 percent attrition rate, and the total Afghan Police force of 115,000 has an attrition rate of 16 percent.
However, he noted that the monthly attrition rate among the Afghan National Civil Order Police, known as ANCOPs, has reached 70 percent, though that rate has decreased recently by almost half.
Currently numbering 5,700 policemen, ANCOPs are the best trained and most professional Afghan police, and they also receive extra literacy training. Their participation is believed to be key in the ongoing military operations in Marjah and Kandahar, where their presence alone can show locals that there is a police force they can have confidence in.
Though they are among the best paid security forces in Afghanistan, it is their high level of training that makes them a valuable commodity, which means they can make even more money elsewhere as security contractors.
Caldwell said he is encouraged by the drop in ANCOP attrition numbers — 47 percent last month — and he thinks the numbers will continue to improve.
He noted that the attrition rate has dropped to “almost nothing” in current operations in Kandahar, where partnering of ANCOPs with U.S. Special Forces has had a great effect. Despite such high attrition numbers, Caldwell said he is optimistic that the goal of expanding the ANCOP numbers to 18,500 by next year can still be achieved.
– Luis Martinez