Afghan army recruit Shahidullah Ahmadi can't read — and neither can nine out of 10 soldiers in the Afghan National Army.
The lack of education points to a basic challenge for the United States, as it tries to expand the Afghan army in the hopes that U.S. and allied forces can one day withdraw. Just as in Iraq — and perhaps even more so — the U.S. is finding it no small task to recruit, train and equip a force that is large and competent enough to operate successfully on its own.
"I face difficulties. If someone calls me and tells me to go somewhere, I can't read the street signs," Ahmadi, 27, a member of a logistics battalion, said while walking through downtown Kabul. "In our basic training, we learned a lot. Some of my colleagues who can read and write can take notes, but I've forgotten a lot of things, the types of things that might be able to save my life."
The Associated Press interviewed recruits and visited a training center to gain a better understanding of the obstacles toward eventually handing over responsibility of security to the Afghan army so that international troops can go home.
The speed with which NATO trains and equips more Afghan security forces has become an issue in the United States, Europe and Canada as governments decide whether to commit more deeply to a war that is losing public support.
Some call for increases in Afghan forces
Carl Levin, the leading Senate Democrat on military issues, said Friday that he wants heightened training of Afghan armed forces before sending more American combat troops. Levin urged the Obama administration to expand Afghan forces to 240,000 troops and Afghan police to 160,000 officers by 2013.
Current plans call for boosting the army from 92,000 soldiers to 134,000 by late 2011. U.S. officials say the combined army and police forces need to increase to about 400,000 by 2014.
"It's absolutely essential that over time Afghanistan assumes responsibility for its own security, and combat troops draw down," said Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for the region. "The current force levels of police and army are clearly going to have to be increased."
Violence in Afghanistan has already soared to record levels, requiring more troops to secure wide stretches of countryside. U.S. and NATO troops can clear areas of Taliban fighters, but they need Afghan soldiers to make sure the militants don't return.
The rapid expansion of the army, however, has already raised questions about whether Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest countries, can sustain a force of that size, as well as maintain discipline and ethnic balance in the ranks. It is likely that the cost of training, equipping and sustaining Afghan forces at a level big enough to maintain security will primarily fall on U.S. taxpayers for years to come.
In Iraq, the U.S. disbanded Saddam Hussein's army in 2003, but six years later has still not managed to create a force capable of operating without American logistical, technical, intelligence and other support. And in Iraq, the U.S. was able to tap resources unavailable in Afghanistan, including a pool of retired military officers and one of the Arab world's most literate populations.
Army most trusted institution
Polls show that the army is the most trusted Afghan institution, a testament to the relative success it has had, especially compared with the police, who are widely derided as corrupt. But about 90 percent of those deciding to join the army are illiterate, according to U.S. military officers involved in the training.
That's higher than the 75 percent national illiteracy rate, because military recruits come from lower classes where few know how to read.
The lack of basic reading skills slows down progress in an already short 10-week training course. It means soldiers cannot use maps properly or understand the army's code of conduct. It also increases the difficulty of building a solid core of noncommissioned officers — sergeants who are the backbone of every successful army, responsible for conveying a commander's written orders to the troops.
U.S. Maj. Gen. Richard Formica, who is in charge of training both soldiers and police, says the high illiteracy rate is not a "show-stopper."
However, he added that illiteracy "particularly becomes a challenge for those recruits that we want to advance to become noncommissioned officers, because the higher you get in rank and responsibility, the more expectation there is that you can read and write at some basic level."
Most Taliban guerrillas also can't read and write, but they don't need to as much.
Understanding maps and signs is important for the Afghan army, which is supposed to deploy anywhere government control is challenged.
Taliban strike on their timetable
The Taliban, however, strike on their own timetable — usually wherever government and NATO forces are weakest. They move among friendly, generally ethnic Pashtun communities and rely on local guides. Many Taliban fighters operate in areas of the country where they grew up, making maps and compasses unnecessary.
The Taliban also generally operate in small units. They use hit-and-run insurgency tactics or lay bombs along roads, highly effective techniques that don't require the same level of sophistication and attention to detail as conventional military tactics, which often use helicopters, artillery, armored vehicles and large numbers of troops.
To overcome the problem for the Afghan army, a private company, Pulau Electronics of Orlando, Fla., has been hired to run a program that aims to make 50 percent of the troops "functionally literate," within the first year of the program.
"The target is for them to be able to write their name and their weapon's serial number," said Joe Meglan, 39, of Savannah, Ga., who works for Pulau.
The main training effort takes place at the Kabul Military Training Center. The road to the training camp is littered with the rusting hulks of tanks destroyed during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, a reminder of the last superpower's failure to tame this war-torn land.
5,000 coalition trainers
Afghan trainers lead the effort with coalition teams mentoring them. After 10 weeks of training, regular soldiers are put into units before being sent to the battlefield.
There are 5,000 coalition trainers who work with both army and police. Some 256 teams work with the army and 85 with the police, according to Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama has ordered 4,000 additional U.S. military trainers as part of his surge of 21,000 new U.S. troops into the country. The training for recruits also has about half the number of mentors it needs from the coalition, said Lt. Col. Daniel Harmuth, 43, from Bakersfield, Ca., who runs the basic warrior training.
In the meantime, illiterate soldiers in the army are scraping by.
"Unfortunately all my friends and I cannot read," said soldier Rosey Khan, 19. "It is very bad, particularly during the fighting. They taught me a lot of things, but I've forgotten most of them. ... Even the officers cannot read."