KABUL, Afghanistan – When NATO troops train Afghan police, their most intensive class is not marksmanship, checkpoint procedure or riot control. It's reading and writing.
Only 11 percent of enlisted personnel and 35 percent of noncommissioned officers in Afghanistan's army and police are literate, according to NATO trainers. That is undermining the troops' effectiveness as NATO works to build up Afghan forces at a time when NATO leaders meeting in Lisbon, Portugal over the weekend confirmed a plan to hand over security powers to them by 2014.
There have been numerous reports of illiterate Afghan security forces getting into trouble. An army unit calling an airstrike down on itself in July because they couldn't read a map. Officers who couldn't read the serial numbers on their weapons or tell what size ammunition they should use. A unit that would set up a checkpoint, but could not read the ID cards of drivers passing through.
Often police can't write down witness statements or look up a law. In some cases, police chiefs were stealing their subordinates' salaries, and illiterate recruits could not detect the theft.
"Illiteracy is like being blind," said Col. Mohammad Hashim, the Afghan training chief of the Central Training Center for police. "None of them could solve a problem. None of them could apply the law."
The Lisbon summit agreed to begin handing off security responsibility to Afghan security forces in early 2011, with a full transition targeted for the end of 2014. But the Afghan forces have a long way to go before then.
Creating an efficient and reliable security force is a crucial to NATO's effort to undercut the Taliban, on the battlefield and in the eyes of the Afghan people, who do not trust the justice system. The Taliban have long used Afghanistan's corruption and lawlessness as a recruiting tool, promising stability and the rule of law through the use of strict Islamic justice.
Before NATO took over the training mission for the security forces a year ago, many Afghan police recruits were simply issued uniforms and guns and sent out to fight. They had a casualty rate three times the Afghan army's, an annual attrition rate of 24 percent, and were widely criticized for incompetence and corruption. The police have grown from 95,000 to 120,500 in the past 10 months.
NATO hopes the new training courses, which spend more time on teaching recruits how to read than any other skill, will slowly help turn things around.
About 74 percent of Afghanistan's population of around 30 million is illiterate — but the percentage is higher in the security forces' lower ranks because few educated Afghans sign up. Those that do head into the officer corps, where literacy is far higher, at 93 percent.
The Taliban and other insurgents draw from the same pool for their recruits, but literacy is not as necessary for their guerrilla-style method of warfare — their fighters don't have to do much reading and writing of reports or checking of IDs.
But for the Afghan security forces, "literacy is a matter of life and death," said American Brig. Gen. Neasmith, who heads up the army training.
U.S. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the top commander of the training for both army and police, hadn't seen literacy training as part of the mission at first, but "the more he dug into it, (he found) it is fundamental," Neasmith said.
Now the six-week, 313-hour basic training for the police devotes 48 hours to literacy, more than the 44 hours spent practicing marksmanship.
The Ministry of Interior has increased the time spent teaching reading and writing to 176 hours for recruits in the more exclusive Afghan National Civil Order Police, known as ANCOP, a force tasked with helping hold territory gained by NATO and Afghan forces.
That is an extra month of spent in the classroom at a time when a push into the Taliban's southern heartland has made NATO desperate for well-trained police to hold the ground they've taken. NATO recently lowered the entry requirements for ANCOP to a first-grade reading level, down from a third-grade level, part of a wider push to rapidly enlarge the Afghan security forces.
Some recruits say the training process could be more efficient, saying that literate recruits are not separated out and are forced to go through the reading classes with illiterate ones.
One chilly afternoon earlier this month, a teacher wrote "sheep," ''cow" and "goat" on the whiteboard in Dari and Pashto, the two main languages in Afghanistan, then got recruits to get up and repeat the list while pointing at the words. Some recruits lounged in the back row, their books closed. They said they had already finished grade 12 and were bored, opening their notebooks to show neat rows of writing and the occasional doodle.
"I thought there would be computer classes but they're teaching us the alphabet," complained Khan Agha, a bearded multilingual English graduate of Peshawar University in his early 20s.
He said that despite his education, he's from a poor family and couldn't afford the bribe needed to get a decent job. So he joined the ANCOP unit instead, which pays a base salary of $226 a month, compared to $176 for a regular police officer.
About half the people in his basic literacy class had already finished high school, Agha said. Several other members of his class agreed, saying there were only four people that could not read at all.
NATO officials said that the recruits should have been separated. They could not explain why recruits of widely different abilities had been put together in a class.
The program manager for the American company contracted to test and stream the recruits said he was surprised to hear of the mix of abilities in one class but that it could be an isolated incident.
Also, Afghan commanders sometimes ask units to train together so more educated recruits could help others, said Chris Saine, whose company OT Training Solutions uses an Afghan subcontractor to administer the tests.
NATO is keen to show it is finally focusing full attention on training the Afghan police after the many years of neglect. But with Taliban attacks climbing around the country, trainers are torn between the need to turn out recruits quickly and the need to build a professional force that can survive, fight and read.
"We have been focusing on quantity, but we also want to focus on quality now," said Italian Gen. Carmelo Burgio, who oversees the police training. "It's getting that balance that is the hardest."