U.S. fights trainer shortage, illiteracy in Afghanistan

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Roughly 2,000 contractors are working to train the Afghan army, about the same as the number of military personnel doing the job, according to a senior U.S. military official, who cited a shortage of available service members.

"We don't have all the green-suiters [military personnel] we need," said Army Maj. Gen. David Hogg, deputy commander of the NATO training mission for the Afghan army, during a conference call from Kabul. Hogg said that his group is short more than 1,000 trainers, even counting personnel pledged by NATO countries, and that he is looking to fill the gap with the transfer of an American battalion.

Contractors are used at every level of training, from those who teach recruits how to read and write to those teaching advanced English to cadets at the Afghan version of West Point so they can go to the United States for pilot training.

Other contractors help train noncommissioned officers at their own academy and in the field, where a variety of skills are needed, including logistics and driving.

Hogg said that if contractors serving as mentors and trainers at the Afghan Defense and Interior ministries are counted, the total of those doing such work in Afghanistan rises to 2,765.

Hogg emphasized the importance of the literacy training for recruits, saying that more than 70 percent of the incoming Afghans cannot read and write. After they learn to write their names and remember the identification of their weapons, they receive hands-on, show-and-tell training in the field, he said.

"They want to be literate," Hogg said. "A new generation is getting educated." Current standards require noncommissioned officers to have a third-grade education and officers to be literate.

In an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, the head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. David H. Petraeus, reiterated the need "to ramp up training" in Afghanistan. He took time to focus on the problem of illiteracy, calling it "a challenge there, beyond needing more trainers and in some cases more facilities."

In his conference call, Hogg emphasized the positive, noting that the first 212 Afghan cadets were graduating as officers from their military academy. He also pointed out that the Afghan officer candidate school has accepted 42 female applicants, the first time it has taken women.

He described the unusual way in which the academy's graduates are being assigned under the Afghan army program. In the past, many were assigned to safe jobs in Kabul as a result of pressure from members of parliament. Under the new system, they are assigned to units where they are needed, but also according to ethnic breakdown -- Pashtun, Tajik and so on -- as is the practice in the Afghan army.

Asked how the language problem is dealt with, Hogg said that most of the Army members speak or understand Dari, except for the Pashtuns, who represent the largest ethnic group but are a minority in the army.

"We mix and match," he said, pointing out that his own Afghan aide speaks both Dari and Pashto.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company