Adventures in War Zones and Disaster Areas for Journalists and Relief Workers

Monthly Archives: February 2011

Afghan Soldiers Can’t See to Read

This week in Afghanistan (Fed 23, 2011) the NATO General in charge of training the new Afghan Army, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, said he would like to see all Afghan National Army soldiers reading at the First Grade Elementary School level by October of 2011.

Think about that statement for a moment and be very amazed.

Things are so bad in the Afghan National Army that only about 15% of its soldiers can read at the Grade Three Elementary School level. Grade Three is the baseline for declaring someone literate in North America.

The importance of being able to read in any army, or military force of any other kind for that matter, is paramount.

If you cannot read and you have never seen a Claymore Land Mine before then you are going to miss the significance of the words embossed onto the front of the thing, “Front Toward Enemy”

A Claymore anit-personnel mine sprays metal fragments in a broad and directed pattern which is why the instructions on it say to point it toward the enemy.

When you are setting one of these up it is important to be able to understand what those words mean

If you are given a map and told to get to a particular village that you have never heard of before in order to be saved from annihilation you will be challenged to the point of death in finding it.

For generations Afghanistan has raised many thousands of fierce and competent warriors but their effectiveness in anything more complicated than a platoon sized action has always been problematic.

Yet there is another problem. A lot of Afghans cannot see well, particularly the middle aged.

Through a combination of poor diet, disease, and the natural aging process, many Afghans wouldn’t be able to see the words in the Cat in the Hat even if they could read. Add also the inability to see great distances and you end up with a severely handicapped soldier.

During my time in Afghanistan after the Taliban ran away, and for several years since, it has been difficult and expensive for Afghans to get proper glasses. And for some reason the wearing of glasses, unless you are a cleric, intellectual, or a greybeard, is considered unmanly.

The lack of glasses not only causes real problems for recruits in the national army and the national police but also for the many thousands of former members of the dozens of warlord armies left over after the ouster of the Taliban. The international community implemented a disarmament program for them together with financial support and training in whatever field they wanted but didn’t do anything for eye or any other health concern.

If you couldn’t read, needed glasses, and had no education, it really didn’t matter as long as all you wanted to do was to go back to farming. But if you wanted to become a small shop owner you needed literacy and you likely would need glasses. For the many hundreds who wanted to become tailors, (it’s inside and warm work) and you couldn’t see well then glasses would be as necessary as a needle.

It’s not generally known but Afghanistan had a not bad army and air force during the Soviet occupation and through the Taliban regime. It all fell apart during the final months following September 11th.

In my travels through the country it was not unusual to meet former tank battalion commanders, fighter pilots, jet engine mechanics and other trained professionals who were unable to find any kind of work even remotely as skilled as what they had been trained for.

When the U-S Military, together with NATO, announced they were going to rebuild the army and national police a lot of the veterans got their hopes up.

It quickly became clear that unless you had serious pull with a government minister and were willing to hand over a very large chunk of money, none of the former armed forces personnel would be taken on as recruits,. And even if they were it would be at a level very far below what they were trained for.

The situation lead to a series of street  demonstrations, some of which turned violent and sometimes fatal. So, the Afghan Government came up with a scheme that would see all of these former Commissioned Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers write examinations to test their knowledge.

I oversaw several of these as an international observer.

It was heartbreaking.

As you can see from the pictures a lot of the men were well past the nominal maximum age of 35 to qualify as recruits. But if they scored high enough, and bribed the right people, there was a chance of an exception.

The examinations were held in unlit and dark former factory buildings, abandoned schools, and bombed out barracks. The examination questions were poorly printed and in a very small font. Anyone with any kind of need for reading glasses simply had zero chance.

It was terrible to hear them whisper in desperate tones to their neighbors for help with the questions. They begged piteously and unsuccessfully to be allowed to stand outside in the light where they might have a chance to read the exams.

An Afghan soldier in dire need of reading glasses

It doesn’t matter if you are literate if you cannot see the words on the page

A few could speak English and were brave enough to ask me for help. At first I refused but the suffering was too intense so I started to quietly help them. Here I was aided greatly by my Afghan staff who were also acting as observers. I got them to help the poor buggers as well but I knew that there wasn’t a chance in hell.

Many months later I ran across a soldier with a rank of what might have been sergeant but I am not sure about that. He recognized me from one of the examinations and just about smothered me in hugs while thanking me for helping him.

He was a former regimental commander but was lucky enough to be taken on as a raw recruit and had risen in rank to Sergeant because he could read and was not too proud to wear glasses. It wasn’t all my doing. He’d found a deputy minister who had taken what amounted to a lifetime mortgage on his military salary in return for getting him accepted as a recruit.