Another Afghanistan spending boondoggle: illiterate Afghan soldiers and cops

Contractors billing for education that barely happened and vast numbers of illiterate recruits in the field? Yes.

Anja Niedringhaus
Afghan army recruits at a training session near Kabul last November.

The ability of soldiers to read and write enables them to understand intelligence, keep records, order fresh supplies, read maps, and participate in training crucial to their skills in the field. In the case of the police literacy is perhaps even more important since, ideally, they conduct investigations and make arrests that can lead to fair prosecutions.

Yet it appears that large sums of money have likely been wasted in Afghanistan trying to imbue basic literacy in police recruits due to shoddy contractor work, lax oversight and seemingly nonexistent tracking of recruits over time, according to a report released today by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction:

The command said that the literacy program will meet its goal of 100 percent of ANSF personnel proficient at Level 1 and 50 percent proficient at Level 3 by the end of 2014. However, these goals were based on the ANSF’s authorized end strength of 148,000 personnel that was established in 2009, rather than the current authorized end strength of 352,000. Several NTM-A/CSTC-A (the National Training Mission-Afghanistan and the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan - both NATO-led security training efforts) officials told us they do not know how the goal for the literacy program was developed, but that attaining it based on the current authorized ANSF end strength may be “unrealistic” and “unattainable.

Translation? The already imperfect literacy program for Afghan soldiers and police (collectively known as the Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF) was designed for an overall force less than half the size of the current one. The SIGAR report also says that between 30 and 50 percent of Afghan police and army recruits either desert or otherwise drop out every year, that literacy training was removed from basic training by the Afghan Ministry of Defense last year, and that "45 percent of police personnel recruited between July 2012 and February 2013 were sent directly to field checkpoints without receiving any literacy training."

Literacy "level one" is the proficiency of an average first grader in the US school system. The US and its NATO allies have long recognized that the illiteracy of the average Afghan cop or soldier was a major obstacle to their goals in the country. In 2010, fewer than 20 percent of Afghan soldiers and police were literate. In Aug. 2010 Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the head of the NATO training effort for the ANSF at the time, laid out the challenge in stark terms: "Unless we take on literacy, we truly will never professionalize this force."

To address the problem three contracts worth a total of $200 million were issued that month to OT Training Solutions, Insight Group, and the Education Institute of Karwan to teach recruits how to read. How has it gone?

"The lack of defined requirements for classes and length of instruction resulted in one contractor billing for classes held for as little as 2 hours a month and for multiple classes at one site that could have been combined into one class," SIGAR writes. "None of the three literacy training contracts requires independent verification of testing for proficiency or identifies recruits in a way that permits accurate tracking as the recruits move on to army and police units.

The NATO training mission reports that 298,526 soldiers and police have trained to some degree of literacy (224,826 reading at a first grade level and 73,700 at a third grade level) but that is well below the current authorized force of 352,000 (leaving 53,474 without any literacy training). That's well short of 100% literacy, the goal of the program, and SIGAR says even the reported numbers can be questioned given the absence of outside auditing of performance and the lack of tracking of soldiers and police quitting against new recruits coming in.

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