September 17, 2009: Afghanistan is finding that illiteracy is a growing problem in the army. Only about 25 percent of recruit are literate. While this can be ignored for the lower ranking troops, NCOs need to read. Illiterate recruits also take longer to train, and more effort to work with. The U.S. has provided an intensive literacy course for troops, which gets most of them to basic ("functional") literacy within a year. In addition to being able to read signs and maps, the newly semi-literate troops are taught to sign their names, and write out the serial number of their weapon. Illiterate troops selected for promotion to sergeant (NCO), are given more literacy training. That's because being able to read and write has long been a critical asset for any army. The Roman Empire, at its height 1800 years ago, had an army over 100,000 troops, a third of which were literate. But with modern armies, an abundance of technology makes literacy even more necessary. The Afghans can get by without it, but can do a lot better with it.
All this is part of an expansion of the Afghan army to 134,000, hopefully by 2011. The government wants a force of 200,000, but first foreign allies must be convinced to donate enough money and trainers. The current army has just completed its training, for a force of 68,000. The national police force has been expanded to 76,000. The soldiers are trained to a higher standard than the police. In fact, there are serious problems with the cops, mainly because of a lack of good leadership. Afghanistan has never had a real national police force, and building one isn't easy. The culture of corruption, and tribalism, plus widespread illiteracy, are proving to be formidable obstacles. Those police units that are well led (and there are some of them) and have worked out good relationships with local tribal leaders (difficult, because of the many feuds, and short tempers), do a good job. Having to battle the Taliban and drug gangs puts additional strain on an already weak force.
Previously, the largest peacetime army Afghanistan ever had was in the late 1970s, when a Russian trained force of 90,000 (with over a thousand armored vehicles) was raised. This did not last, as a civil war broke out, and the Russians invaded in late 1979. A year later, most of the army had rebelled or deserted. When the Russians left in 1989, they had rebuilt the Afghan army to 45,000 troops. That force disappeared in the next five years, as the nation descended into civil war. The Taliban won that war, but never had a standing force of more than 20,000 fighters, and these were largely militia, with one brigade of fanatical, and deadly, al Qaeda fighters to keep the Afghan troops, and stubborn tribes, loyal.
The current army has been trained to Western standards, by NATO instructors. By Afghan standards, it's a pretty effective force. Nearly tripling its size will take several years, if the same training methods are used. The thousand or so Russian armored vehicles the Afghans had in the late 1970s, are nearly all gone to scrap, chicken coops, or roadside reminders of the Russian invasion. The Afghans are reequipping with Cold War surplus German Leopard tanks. The Afghans want a larger force to deal with the Taliban insurrection, the growing power of the drug gangs, and possible trouble with Pakistan or Iran.