Best Defense

Literacy versus military effectiveness: Thoughts from an Army cultural expert

Here is a sensible response to the item I had earlier this week about whether sometimes aiming for literacy in recruiting local security forces means sacrificing other skills, such as knowledge of rural ways or ability to operate at night. By Adam L. Silverman, Ph.D. Best Defense guest columnist In regard to training Afghan security ...

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Here is a sensible response to the item I had earlier this week about whether sometimes aiming for literacy in recruiting local security forces means sacrificing other skills, such as knowledge of rural ways or ability to operate at night.

By Adam L. Silverman, Ph.D.
Best Defense guest columnist

In regard to training Afghan security forces, whether police or military, I don’t think there is a need to trade off. Rather we need to adjust our understanding of where the populations (because in each area of Afghanistan the population is going to be different) are at in terms of education and literacy and development and then appropriately adjust our training expectations, goals, and regimens.

A lot of what we are dealing with, especially out in the rural, more rural, and really rural areas, are individuals that are used to other forms of learning. For instance, memorization of the Quran/auditory repetition rote memorization and experiential/observational learning through watching others do some task. So to train up the potential recruits, many of whom are certainly not well educated (by our standards) and many may be functionally illiterate, using training and education methods that we would use for recruits in the United States or in Europe, means we are going to fail. The training should instead focus on finding the hafezes (those who have memorized the Qurans) or other notables or elites in the training cohort, building them up as an exemplar to be followed (to start with ask them to recite from the Quran, placing the request within the framework of "would you honor us by sharing this with your fellow students and us?") emulated, and imitated, and then reinforce through repetition of the task. This mirrors the social learning environment of how people learn from groups; specifically the imitation and reinforcement. Once we get them cracking away at being good police or soldiers in terms of tasks that don’t require high degrees of literacy, then we can begin the hard and lengthy remedial literacy training. At the same time we tackle the literacy issue as an educational development operation by working a large scale literacy project among young Afghans, which is the demographic that will take to this type of education the easiest. They can then be mobilized to help their elders and create a reinforcing cycle.

Adam L. Silverman is the culture and foreign language advisor at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College or the U.S. Army.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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