Afghan notebook: Illiterate army

Literacy instruction at Darulaman Literacy Center A literacy class at a training centre in Kabul

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About half the personnel serving in Afghanistan's security services are illiterate, despite huge investments in teaching programmes, according to a survey by a US watchdog.

"I always regret not being able to read or write," says Ali Akbar, a 34-year-old soldier in the Afghan army.

Originally from Ghazni province, he joined up in 2008 and was enrolled in an army literacy programme three years later.

"I was over the moon when they told me."

But things didn't work out as Ali had hoped.

BBC Afghan notebook

This is where our reporters share stories beyond the daily conflict and politics of a country preparing for the most important poll in its recent history as foreign troops withdraw.

We'll focus on the surprising while treating the familiar from fresh angles, combined with a street-level view of a country in transition.

Most of the posts will be written, photographed or filmed by our journalists across Afghanistan.

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The basic literacy course he attended was supposed to help him read and write all the letters of the alphabet and numbers up to 1,000, as well as to write his own name and recognise short words.

But despite 64 hours of lessons he's still unable to do more than write the first three letters of his name.

"The courses were too short, and there was too much to take in," he says.

"For someone of my age, you need much more time to practise."

According to the Afghan Education Ministry, only about one-third of Afghans can read and write.

After three decades of civil war many people never had the chance to go to school, and many more, like Ali, have only received the most basic education.

Ali Akbar learnt little in dozens of literacy lessons Ali Akbar learnt little in dozens of literacy lessons

In 2009, the US launched a $200m literacy programme which aimed to have everyone in the military reach at least basic standards by the end of 2014.

But a recent report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar) said US military officials now admit this goal is probably unattainable.

It's a huge obstacle to Afghanistan's attempts to build a modern and efficient army.

Spelling disaster

Ali says one of the big problems of the literacy training was that it focused on delivery rather than results - something Sigar also highlighted.

"Our teachers weren't bad," he says, "But they were running the courses based on a contract so it didn't really matter to them if we learned or not.

"My brother who is still at school is better at showing me how to spell out words."

Another reason literacy rates remain so stubbornly low is the very high turnover rate in the Afghan army.

Sigar says that as many as half the soldiers who complete the training, then leave.

Basic Dari literacy training material Training material in Dari for Afghan soldiers and police

"Some of our colleagues who were good at fast learning, have now left the army," says Ali. "Once they could read and write they could easily find a better job."

Officials overseeing the literacy programme are now considering recommendations from Sigar on improving the training programme.

Ali hopes his young son will learn to read at school, and will be able to read to him one day.

For now he loves leafing through magazines looking at pictures, but the words make no sense to him.

"Being illiterate is like being blind," he says.

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