Efforts to teach Afghanistan troops to read may be NATO’s lasting legacy

McClatchy Foreign StaffOctober 1, 2013 

— 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.”

Improving literacy has implications not only for jobs and the economy, but for freeing villagers from the sway of radical imams who in areas dominated by insurgents often are a main source of information about how the world works.

“When the people are not literate, anybody can misguide them,” said Ghulam Sakhi Omari, a teacher at the Darlaman Literacy Center. “They can be persuaded to do anything for the money because they can’t distinguish between good and bad and think that if anybody who has learning tells them something that it must surely be right.”

In 2001, fewer than 1 million Afghan children were estimated to be enrolled in school, according to the Brookings Institution’s Afghanistan index. By 2011, more than 8 million were enrolled – a statistic that promises major improvement in the country’s literacy. Adult literacy is also a focus. All told, more than 700,000 adults are enrolled in literacy programs across Afghanistan, according to the Ministry of Education.

The effects of more schooling are showing up in the recruits, said U.S. Air Force Maj. Carol Marrujo, who until this past summer was chief of literacy operations for NATO in Afghanistan. In 2010, only about 10 percent of recruits could read; now it’s 15 percent, she said.

Still, the problem of illiteracy is far from solved, and Dupree said that it’s impossible to do it properly without giving people material to read that keeps them reading.

Dupree founded the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University, which contains a collection of 80,000 documents that essentially contain the story of the nation’s modern history. The center also runs a program that distributes small “libraries in a box” throughout the country, nearly 250,000 volumes to date. It buys some of the books, but it also has commissioned 124 titles that are short and aimed at newly literate readers.

She has been trying to convince coalition leaders of the importance of a follow-on program that would provide the security forces with books.

It’s a smart idea to pursue, said David Rosen, a former director of the Adult Literacy Resource Institute at the University of Massachusetts who now runs Newsome Associates, an international education consulting company.

“I think what she’s saying is absolutely correct,” he said. “The most important thing once you learn to read is to have what many people call a culture of reading, and the more written material people have in their hands, the more they are likely to continue reading and not lose that skill.”

On a recent day at the Darlaman Literacy Center – for now a bunch of dimly lit former barracks, but a new building is on the way – Omari, the teacher, pointed to letters on a whiteboard and helped the rest of the class string them into syllables, then build the syllables into simple words.

As he taught, one student, 18-year-old Nizammuddin, paused to tell a visitor what learning to read meant.

Nizammuddin, a recruit from rural Kunduz province who like many Afghans goes by one name, said that his new skills would help him read instructions for his weapons and equipment and signs on base. He said he looked forward to writing his family letters. Then he gave a glimpse deep into the potential of the NATO program’s legacy.

“It is not just for me,” he said. “I want to get literate myself and teach this to my brothers who are also illiterate and to my friends with the same problem.”

About his future after the army? “I simply want to be a teacher,” he said.

Email: jayprice@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @jayinkabul

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