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Extremely high illiteracy and desertion rates among Afghan army and police recruits have become the top challenges to standing up reliable Afghan security forces, a top Army general said Monday.
And that means recruiting and training Afghan security forces will have to extend well beyond the target date President Obama has set for beginning to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan in July of next year.
Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, head of the NATO-led effort to train the Afghan national security forces, told reporters Monday that his command is making "measured progress" toward meeting the goal of 306,000 Afghan soldiers and police by Oct. 31, 2011.
"We're very much aware that the president of the United States has talked about how he wants to have the ability to look at and make a decision around July 2011," Caldwell told reporters in a teleconference from Afghanistan.
"We're aware of the date. Gen. [David] Petraeus [commander of coalition forces] has said that is the start of a process based on conditions on the ground. We continue to say that by October 2011, the end of October, we can make the current growth objectives" for recruiting Afghan security forces.
White House officials say the July 2011 drawdown date is "non-negotiable."
There are currently about 225,000 Afghan soldiers and police, about 75 percent of the targeted end strength.
One of the issues that is slowing the training effort is the fact that more than 80 percent of the Afghans coming into the police and army are illiterate, Caldwell said. Afghanistan has one of the world's lowest literacy rates.
As a result, U.S. forces are helping Afghan recruits reach a first-grade reading level that Caldwell said is critical to the success of the new security forces.
"How do you expect a solider to account for their weapon if they can't even read the serial number?" Caldwell said. "I know that it's really challenging for some people to fully appreciate just how illiterate most of this population is. It doesn't mean they don't have street sense and they're not smart in many ways. But they don't have the education … to look at a series of numbers and to be able to read it.
"If they are issued equipment and they are told they are supposed to have four shirts and three pairs of pants and two boots on a piece of paper," it's important that "they can actually read that and then look at the equipment instead of being reliant on someone else to do that for them," Caldwell said.
He said the training command is hiring up to 1,000 literate Afghans to help soldiers learn to read. Currently, about 27,000 Afghan police and army recruits are taking literacy courses, a number that could grow to 100,000 by spring 2011, Caldwell said.
Desertion also is a major problem. The Afghan army loses about 23 percent of its troops each year because soldiers leave the force. Police attrition is about 14 percent annually, Caldwell said.
It's unclear whether they are getting jobs as private security contractors, joining Taliban militias, or just going back to work on a family farm.
"We really don't know where they go to — to be honest," Caldwell said.
One new attempt to reduce attrition involves taking biometric information — fingerprints, eye scans, etc. — from each new recruit. That information may eventually be crosschecked with similar information from private security firms, Caldwell said.
Also, new recruits are required to provide two letters of recommendation attesting to their character and loyalty, Caldwell said.
The U.S. effort to develop Afghan security forces has been inconsistent during the past nine years, but now an ambitious and focused effort is underway, Caldwell said.
"Most of all, it takes time," Caldwell said. "We are looking toward Oct 31, 2011, to finish building the force and we will continue with the professionalization of it — recognizing that there are certain aspects that we will continue to work with them on for several years."