WASHINGTON Only one in 10 Afghans who sign up for Afghanistan's police and army can read and write, a senior NATO commander said, underscoring the challenges the West faces as it rushes to put local forces in charge.
William Caldwell, the American lieutenant general who heads international training efforts in Afghanistan, said on Monday that many troops could not even write their own names.
As a result, literacy education has become a major component of basic training, Caldwell said during a speech in Washington. Many new police officers and soldiers spending two hours a day learning to read.
Ten years after the war in Afghanistan began, the United States and other nations battling a resurgent Taliban have made strides in building up local security forces, which have grown to almost 300,000 members.
NATO commanders are rushing to get local forces up to speed as they begin to hand over control of security and gradually draw down a foreign force of around 147,000 soldiers.
President Barack Obama is expected to announce within weeks his plan to start pulling out U.S. troops this summer, a first step toward ending a war that now costs over $110 billion a year and could be a liability for Obama as he seeks re-election in 2012.
But the success of efforts in Afghanistan will depend not just on NATO's performance on the battlefield but also on its ability to broker a political settlement with the Taliban and to train a competent Afghan army.
Desertion and infiltration -- resulting in a growing number of attacks on foreign forces by local forces or people dressed in Afghan uniforms -- are two persistent problems.
While Caldwell said desertion rates had declined, they remain high. About 18 percent of Afghan police desert each year and that rate is almost 30 percent for the army, he said.
(Reporting by Missy Ryan, Editing by Cynthia Osterman)