By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 23, 2011 – The number and quality of recruits to the Afghan national security force are growing, a senior official in the training effort said here today.
Jack Kem, deputy to the commander of NATO Training Mission Afghanistan and Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, briefed Pentagon reporters about his duties in the Afghan capital of Kabul, where he is responsible for the NATO training mission’s literacy, gender, integrity building and rule of law programs.
“The size of the Afghan National Army has increased from 97,000 in November 2009 to over 164,000 today,” Kem said, and will grow to 171,600 by summer’s end. The Afghan National Police has grown from just under 95,000 in November 2009 to 126,000 today, and will reach 134,000 by fall.
Taken together, Kem said, this is an increase of 98,000 recruits in 18 months that has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in quality.
The literacy rate for incoming soldiers and police officers is about 14 percent, Kem said, “meaning that 86 percent of our recruits are unable to read and write at the third-grade level. This has been an enormous challenge.” What began as a voluntary literacy program with less than 13,000 enrolled has become mandatory for basic army and police training, he said, and programs around the country are teaching basic literacy and numeracy.
“Today, we have over 81,000 Afghan [soldiers and police] in mandatory literacy classes, and we have graduated another 92,000 in different literacy classes since November 2009,” Kem said.
“We know that we will improve the literacy rate in Afghanistan in the Afghanistan national security forces to over 50 percent by January 2012,” he added.
The goal, Kem said, is to have full functional literacy in the army and police, defined as third-grade-level literacy.
Kem noted that the prospect of learning to read and write has been a huge draw for Afghans to join the army and the police.
“Literacy has a huge impact on the professionalization of the army and the police, addresses issues of corruption and will have an economic impact on the country in the years to come,” he said.
Corruption is being addressed in several other ways, he added, including developing codes of ethics for the army and the police and establishing an anti-corruption phone line that’s always manned and whose investigators are from an independent agency.
Putting blue dye in army and police fuel reduces incidents of stealing, Kem said, and using a lottery system adds transparency to handing out army assignments and prevents the best ones from being sold to the highest bidder.
Another step involves “having accountability of all the vehicles, weapons and radio systems that didn't have full accountability in the past,” he said, noting that a physical inventory is now complete for all vehicles issued in Afghanistan over the past 10 years.
Special efforts are in force, Kem said, to deal with problems of recruiting Pashtuns from the five southern provinces and avoiding violence to Americans by members of the Afghan army and police force. For the problem of attacks on Americans, he said, “we've instituted an eight-step approach for all the new recruits coming in.”
The vetting process includes matching the recruit and his identification card, requiring two letters of recommendation from village elders, performing a physical exam, doing a records check through intelligence sources, and using biometric measures, such as fingerprinting.
“It will never be foolproof,” Kem acknowledged. “It's not foolproof in the United States; it won't be foolproof in Afghanistan. But it's an area that we look at very closely, … and it is something that I think the Afghans take very seriously as well, because they want to be good partners.”
To ethnically balance the Afghan National Police, Kem said, the percentage of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and other ethnic groups must be monitored.
“We balance every one of the battalions,” he added, and because of problems recruiting Pashtuns from the southern provinces, a special recruiting program has been instituted with the Afghans. The numbers of southern Pashtuns has risen slowly, Kem said, “but they're not where they need to be.”
“We're trying to get at least 4 percent of the recruits from the five southern provinces that are Pashtuns,” he added, “and aiming for getting about 6 to 8 percent in the next couple years.”
Work remains to be done between now and Dec. 31, 2014, when the transition of lead security responsibility in all 34 provinces to Afghan forces is scheduled to be complete, Kem said.
“In my personal professional judgment,” he added, “we will have the Afghans ready to assume that responsibility.”