Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Afghanistan: Who’s stupid now?

Stories like this from the Associated Press drive me nuts. The Afghan army is “hard to train.” Why? Because the soldiers are illiterate. Pop quiz: How many of the Spartans at Thermopalye were literate? One reason armies have had officers is to ensure that for every 100 or so soldiers, there  is someone who can ...

580899_090916_ricks0b2.jpg
580899_090916_ricks0b2.jpg

Stories like this from the Associated Press drive me nuts. The Afghan army is "hard to train." Why? Because the soldiers are illiterate. Pop quiz: How many of the Spartans at Thermopalye were literate? One reason armies have had officers is to ensure that for every 100 or so soldiers, there  is someone who can decipher a map and read orders.

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."

Stories like this from the Associated Press drive me nuts. The Afghan army is “hard to train.” Why? Because the soldiers are illiterate. Pop quiz: How many of the Spartans at Thermopalye were literate? One reason armies have had officers is to ensure that for every 100 or so soldiers, there  is someone who can decipher a map and read orders.

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.”

… 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 average private soldier in Afghanistan does not need to be literate. Nor does he need diversity training, by the way. (FWIW, he probably has a lot more liberated attitude toward gays than does the average Marine recruit.)

He only needs the sort of literacy classes described in the AP article if his American trainers lack the imagination and historical knowledge to train him to be an Afghan, instead of an imitation American, soldier. If we are going to make any progress in dealing with failed states, we are going to have to learn to train across cultures. I mean, Gurkhas became one of the most feared entities in the British military establishment.

I suspect that Americans tend to think people who are illiterate are stupid. They are not, especially in a country like Afghanistan. 

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

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. Twitter: @tomricks1

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