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Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, IV Headshot

Literacy As a Matter of Life and Death

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If you have never been taught your numbers, you cannot read a map. In war, if you cannot read a map to relay your location, you are dead. When I visited Western Afghanistan a few weeks ago a soldier's story made this very point. An Afghan unit, capable of operating independently, was ambushed in a remote valley. They knew exactly where they were...they had been patrolling this area for years...some of them had grown up there...but when they needed artillery and air support...when they needed to evacuate their wounded...they could not provide their location. Not a single soldier could read their map to provide their location.

Literacy, a basic element of education that we take for granted, is a matter of life and death in Afghanistan. When you consider the average literacy rate for an entry level soldier or policeman in Afghanistan is about 14% across the entire Afghan National Security Force, literacy becomes a major challenge in training, education, and even performance of the basic skills required by a professional security force. As I wrote recently in an article for the Wall Street Journal, literacy should not be confused with intelligence, nor illiteracy with a lack of it. The Afghan soldiers and policemen that I interact with every day are quick, witty, and experienced. But literacy is a major challenge to professionalizing their force.

The #1 challenge to building a self-sustaining Afghan National Security Force that can serve and protect its people, and thereby transition into the lead for security, is developing professionalism within its ranks. Professionalism, and the enduring benefits it provides to security forces like the Army and Police, is why literacy development is so important. This skill is the essential enabler that addresses not just life and death issues, but the cornerstone elements of professionalism: the ability to enforce accountability, the opportunity to attend professional military and law enforcement education, particularly specialized skills taught in technical schools and continued education, and the knowledge to combat corruption.

How can personnel provide oversight for all aspects of the force, from equipment to personnel, and regulations to training, if they cannot read? How can an illiterate soldier know what equipment he is supposed to have and to maintain if he cannot read the list? How can a policeman who does not know his numbers read and understand the serial number on his own weapon? Literacy is required to enforce accountability.

Additionally, literacy develops technical competency through professional education. The ability to read provides soldiers and policemen the ability to attend these schools and learn enabling skills such as logistics, maintenance, intelligence and communications. These skills are required to sustain a professional force in the field, as well as build enduring capacity for the future.

Finally, literacy combats corruption within the Afghan National Security Force, preventing bad actors from preying on the illiterate. When the force is literate, standards can be published and everyone can be held accountable to adhere to them, up the chain of command as well as down. This includes soldiers and policemen having the ability to prevent theft of their pay. Only when they can read how much they are owed, and how much have they received, will they be able to prevent such theft.

To provide this critical enabler to the Afghan National Security Force, we have recently created mandatory literacy courses. Today they are educating about 27,000 recruits, Army and Police, at any given time in these programs, growing to 50,000 by this December. By June of 2011, we will continuously have about 100,000 army and police recruits in full-time literacy training programs. Though the creation of these mandatory literacy courses in the past ten months have supported the professionalization of the Afghan National Security Force and educated many students, it will take time and sustained effort to educate an entire generation of Afghans to the level necessary to create professional leaders and allow for the specialization of the force.

Building up the Afghan people in this way is in stark contrast to the approach of Afghanistan's enemies. Where we build up, they tear down. While we are improving the future of the Afghan people through education and development, the Taliban and its allies are destroying schools, poisoning children, and maiming civilians. Let us continue to provide Afghans the skills like literacy that they need to survive and thrive, while fighting to defeat those that promise only death.