Washington Bureau

01.28.14

After $200 Million, Afghan Soldiers Still Can’t Read

The U.S. spent 5 years and $200 million on a program to teach Afghan soldiers to read, but a new report reveals that effort was a failure.

The United States government has spent $200 million on a literacy program for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) over the past five years but half the Afghan army still can’t read or write according to a new report.

"Literacy of the Afghan National Security Forces is of critical importance," said John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). "We've spent $200 million on this  -- yet we don't even know how many Afghan security forces are literate or how well the program worked. That's deeply disturbing."

The goal of the program was to make 100 percent of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) able to read at a first grade level and 50 percent literate at a third grade level by the time U.S. forces are due to withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of 2014. But officials told SIGAR that that attaining those goals with the Afghan army, which is set to grow to 352,000, may be “unrealistic” and unattainable.” 

To be considered literate at a third grade level, an Afghan soldier must be able to read, write, and comprehend short paragraphs, use correct punctuation to aid meaning and understanding, add and subtract using six-digits numbers, and multiply and divide with three-digit numbers.

An Afghan soldier who can read at a first grade level is expected to read, write, pronounce, and identify letters, read and write short words, read and write one’s own name, and count up to 1,000.

Between Nov. 2009, when the program began, until Oct. 2013, only 73,700 ANSF soldiers passed a literacy test that they could read at a third grade level, according to the report. 224,000 had passed the first grade level literacy test. Despite those numbers, SIGAR concluded that the program appears to have had limited impact on actual literacy levels within the ANSF.

In addition, many of the soldiers who have been educated at U.S. taxpayer expense are no longer in the Afghan Army. The ANSF has a remarkably high attrition rate, between 30 and 50 percent a year. As of Feb. 2013, roughly half of the ANSF was still illiterate, according to some of the officials in charge of the literacy training.

Moreover, the U.S. government is not able to verify if the program is working.

“The command’s ability to measure the effectiveness of its literacy training program and determine the extent to which overall literacy of the ANSF has improved is limited,” the report stated.

SIGAR identified several other flaws in the literacy program. The program didn’t track students after their courses to be able to follow up on their progress. Further, the program, which relied on private contractors to teach the courses, did not specify what the curriculum should contain or monitor the majority of sites where classes were held. This led to what the report called poor implementation by contractors.

Many of the new recruits were sent into the field with no literacy training at all. “45 percent of police personnel recruited between July 2012 and February 2013 were sent directly to field checkpoints without receiving any literacy training,” the report stated.

Without being able to read, it makes it difficult for soldiers to do all but the most basic tasks and to reach any level of professionalism, NATO and ISAF officials told the SIGAR investigators.

After this year, the Afghan government will take full control of the literacy program but that presents additional challenges. The Afghan Defense and Interior Ministries are not fulfilling their commitments to oversee the program. For example, they won’t agree to extend the training time for recruits who need the literacy training, SIGAR reported.

The U.S. government has recently responded to SIGAR’s concerns by drastically scaling back the sites where literacy courses are taught and cutting the overall number of classes, to promote better oversight. But as U.S. forces draw down in Afghanistan, all contract oversight will become increasingly difficult, SIGAR noted in their report.

The International Security Assistance Force – Afghanistan (ISAF), which is led by U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford, responded to the SIGAR report. They agreed to some recommendations, including that the program should redefine its goals to be more realistic and promised to work more with the Afghan government on the program ahead of the scheduled departure of American troops at the end of 2014. ISAF did not agree though with SIGAR’s recommendation that the contracts be redesigned to make the courses more standardized.

On Monday, one day before the negative SIGAR report was set to be released, ISAF released a press notice stating they had implemented new contracts for literacy training of the ANSF, with more stringent metrics to measure performance and limiting contract scope to encourage better contractor performance.

“These measures will not only improve fiscal oversight, they will ensure that we build upon the gains we have achieved in providing formal literacy training to more than 382,500 Afghan soldiers and police,” said Maj. Gen. Dean Milner, commander of the NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan, in the press release. “Literacy is a powerful capability that contributes not only to the professionalism of the ANSF, but to the strengthening of Afghan society."