Audit finds Afghan literacy program sponsored by U.S. riddled with problems

Afghan security forces are seen near the building which was occupied by militants in Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday Sept. 14, 2011. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)

A five-year, $200 million program to prepare Afghanistan’s fledgling security forces to read is failing to yield results, lacked oversight and has left Afghan security forces vulnerable to a growing enemy insurgency as the United States prepares to draw down this year, an audit released Tuesday by the chief U.S. watchdog for Afghanistan revealed.

The audit, titled Afghan National Security Forces: Despite Reported Successes, Concerns Remain about Literacy Training Program Results, Contract Oversight, Transition, and Sustainment, reviewed the literacy training program under the command of International Security Forces (ISAF) implemented since 2009 and found that, despite claims that the program was successful, “none of the three literacy training contracts requires independent verification of testing for proficiency or identifies recruits in a way that permits accurate tracking as the recruits move on to (Afghan) army and police units.” That’s according to the Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which  provides independent and objective oversight of more than $96.57 billion  reconstruction programs in Afghanistan.

Steven Bucci, former assistant secretary of defense under Donald Rumsfeld and senior defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told TheBlaze that despite the audit, Afghanistan must not be abandoned after the draw down and programs must be reassessed.

“I feel dismay that we were unable to pull off so basic a task as teaching basic literacy,” Bucci said. “While I agree that obtaining 100 percent (literacy) was probably unrealistic, the level of failure is sadly spectacular. It is an indicator of the pressing need that still exists in Afghanistan for our help. The slide backward there could make Iraq look like a huge success.”

The audit revealed that “between July 2012 and February 2013, 45 percent of Afghan National Police were sent directly into the field without any literacy training” despite claims that the majority had taken, at the very least, literacy level one classes. Making matters worse, command officials responsible for literacy training estimated “that roughly half of the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) was still illiterate as of February 2013,” a SIGAR official told TheBlaze.

Training Afghan security forces to use weapons, operate machinery, and work cohesively among foreign allies has been exceedingly difficult since the implementation of the security forces, “since roughly nine out of 10 people in the country remain illiterate and it is becoming more unlikely that the U.S. will continue to aide and supply the nation in the same way as we draw down,” a Defense official told TheBlaze.

President Obama has promised to draw down roughly 66,000 plus troops by the end of 2014 making the situation in Afghanistan more precarious for remaining U.S. forces who will be relying on Afghan counterparts to fight Taliban aggression.

But military officials admitted to SIGAR that their original goal in 2009 to  achieve 100 percent “level one” literacy training for the Afghan forces based on target size of 352,000 may be “unrealistic” and “unattainable,” according to the report. Level one training entailed 64 hours of classroom instruction for security forces. Instructors were supposed to teach Afghan forces how to read, write, pronounce, and identify letters. Afghan security personnel would also be required to read and write short words, their own name, count up to 1,000 and identify, write, and order numbers up to 1,000. The classes would also require security force personnel to learn to add and subtract triple-digit whole numbers, according to the SIGAR report.

Although implementing the literacy programs was challenging, they were intended to create cohesion, reliability and effectiveness in the Afghan military, which was nearly 90 percent illiterate in 2009 as the new force started to grow. However, little has changed and many members of the Afghan security forces remain skeptical of U.S. involvement and have very little faith that their own fragile government will be able to provide for the forces after the NATO withdraws. In fact, although more than 224,000 ANSF received basic literacy training, the program “lacked the key elements critical to measuring program success.”

Worse, the study found a high attrition rate among Afghan security forces — totaling between 30 to 50 percent — making it “unlikely that all of the personnel who passed a literacy training level are still in the ANSF” and meaning “the program appears to have had limited impact on actual literacy levels within the security forces,”  SIGAR officials noted in the report.

Investigators found that ISAF’s own internal review of the program failed to “link the names and military identification numbers of students listed on class rosters with course graduation rosters and their assigned units’ personnel lists.”

Further, the contracts also do not adequately define what constitutes a literacy class. “The lack of defined requirements for classes and length of instruction resulted in one contractor billing for classes held for as little as two hours a month and for multiple classes at one site that could have been combined into one class,” the report says.

The program was funded by the United States and the “contracts were with OT Training Solutions (OTTS), Insight Group, and the Higher Education Institute of Karwan (HEIK).”  ISAF plans to transfer the literacy training program to the Afghan government at the end of 2014, the report states.

“There’s a lot of concern that as the we draw down and limit our role in Afghanistan the Taliban will return because programs like these have been nothing but failed waste of money and the Afghan security forces aren’t prepared or ready to take charge,” said a U.S. Military official, who worked in Afghanistan on numerous deployments. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to  speak on the matter.

“There’s been a failure in oversight and ISAF needs to hold contractors accountable for these programs that cost U.S. taxpayers millions,” added the U.S.  Military official. “The issue is not just an Afghan one but a potential national security threat to the U.S. sometime in the future if Afghanistan once again becomes a safe-haven for terrorists.”