ADRASKAN NATIONAL TRAINING CENTER, Afghanistan — The 408 members of the 16th Afghan National Civil Order Police class started training in October to assume their responsibilities to help secure Afghanistan’s future.
First, though, more than three-quarters of them had to learn to read.
By November, it was time to learn about traffic laws. But first, the students had to learn what side of the road Afghans are supposed to drive on, the definition of the word “highway” and the meaning of the word “law.”
In early December, after 14 weeks of intensive training in skills ranging from room clearance to marksmanship to handcuffing suspects, another class of police recruits was preparing for a driving demonstration to be presented at a formal graduation ceremony the next day.
Two police trucks were supposed to race around the track, weaving through cones. Instead, they crashed head-on. No one was seriously injured, but the trucks were totaled.
The driving demonstration was scrapped.
There’s a catchy phrase American commanders are fond of using to describe the accelerating effort to rapidly train up 305,000 Afghan police and army soldiers to take over security from the American-led NATO troops who have spent a decade chasing the Taliban across this war-ravaged nation.
“As the Afghan security forces stand up,” the saying goes, “American forces can stand down.”
So far, the Afghan forces are barely kneeling if the scene at the Adraskan National Training Center in the desert of western Herat Province — the premier training facility for the elite Afghan National Civil Order Police — is any indication.
The goal at Adraskan is to more than double the ANCOP ranks — from 7,000 to 18,500 — by October. But most of the police trainees here can barely read, let alone drive or shoot straight. Some can’t even understand the lessons because many of the trainers are Italian Carabinieri who don’t speak English and the Afghan translators don’t speak Italian.
“We cannot teach to someone who is illiterate,” said Italian Capt. Alessandro Criscitiello, Adraskan’s NATO training element commander, who calls basic literacy and numeracy essential for ANCOP recruits. Without it, they can’t count ammunition, read a map or tell someone where they are over the radio.
“This is the difference between life and death,” he said.
The definition of a quality police recruit, one NATO trainer observed, is “two arms, two legs, one rifle.”
Discipline is but a dream; Afghan instructors seem to ditch more classes than their students. Desertion is rampant: NATO and Afghan officials say many recruits sign up just for the training salary — $230 a month — and disappear after graduation.
Overall attrition rates for the Afghan army and police are so high that to reach the goal of 305,000 standing forces by October, the Afghans will have to recruit and train three times as many men.
Already that daunting task has stripped away any pretense of physical standards for police recruits. Men of all shapes and ages proceed through training at Adraskan, including one elderly recruit the U.S. Marine trainers here call “Father Time.”
“The majority of students are illiterate and old,” Afghan police instructor Sayid Hashim said. “This will be a big problem for us.”
Everyone involved says the Afghan police will need at least a decade of international assistance before they can stand on their own. But politically, the clock is ticking toward the July deadline laid down by President Barack Obama to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan — a key milestone on the road to a full transfer of security to Afghan forces, predicted for 2014.
Reading is fundamental
The ANCOP is considered elite, in part, because its members supposedly can read. But out of the 408 new Afghan recruits who arrived here last October, just 70 met the third-grade literacy requirement to begin the training program.
The remaining 338 were given the option to retest after an intensive four-week literacy class designed to get them to first-grade reading levels.
The hope was that they could comprehend the training with a first-grade level, then get to third-grade level by the time they graduated. The reality was that there would be no testing before graduation to show whether they had learned a thing.
More than half of the illiterate recruits said no to the four-week course and quit. An Afghan teacher named Yunis presided over the remaining recruits, who crowded at broken desks, some talking — or sleeping — throughout the lessons.
“The students are hard,” Yunis said. “They don’t understand the alphabet.”
There were also too many of them.
“If it was 20 students, I can make literacy,” he said.
Criscitiello, the Italian trainer, blamed Afghan recruiters desperate to fill the ANCOP ranks for signing up unqualified men. A year ago, he said, arriving recruits had high school or even university-level educations, but not anymore.
As a result, he said, NATO and the Afghan government have had to steadily lower their standards.
“We’re not lowering the high bar,” countered Canadian Army Maj. Gen. Stuart Beare, the deputy commander for police training at NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan. “We’re lowering the entry level with the intent to get them to standard.”
Turning away unqualified recruits has risks as well.
Najibullah, who like many Afghans uses one name, traveled more than 500 miles in December — from the snowy peaks of Badakhshan to Adraskan — only to be sent home because he was illiterate. The Afghan recruiters who signed him up had told him that literacy didn’t matter, he said.
But Najibullah said he would face shame and embarrassment when he returned home without an ANCOP uniform.
“We don’t have any opportunities,” Najibullah said after he and 80 other illiterate men were told to go home. “Most of us will become Taliban, because we cannot believe in the government.”
Training the trainers
While NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan regularly highlights its efforts to “train the trainers,” many of the Afghan instructors at Adraskan appear to be of dubious quality. Some are rumored to be assigned here based on personal ties to the Afghan base commander rather than any ability to teach.
If the Afghan trainers showed up at all for classes last winter, they didn’t stay long. Classes routinely started late or ended early, and trainees began to goof off. The Afghan instructors visibly played favorites and indiscriminately beat the recruits.
U.S. Marines here, as well as Italian and Polish trainers, said they have been told not to discipline students who get out of line because that is an Afghan job. The foreigners said they can only walk away, powerless and demoralized by the lack of standards.
“You’re talking about people who haven’t known a stable life, no reason to believe they’d have a pension, a retirement, or that the system they’re fighting for will last,” said Ronald Neumann, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, who now heads the American Academy of Diplomacy. “It’s hard to get over that.”
The Afghan instructors are supposed to teach recruits side by side with their NATO colleagues. More often than not, the NATO soldiers run the show.
During one class on first-aid, the Afghan instructor got a call on his cellphone and announced that he had to go, leaving Marine Lance Cpl. Anthony Baran and Pfc. Ysnardy Torres in charge with 20 minutes to kill.
No expert on first-aid and vamping to fill the time, Baran told the story of the ancient Spartans, who fought a force much larger than themselves.
“When you are fighting the enemies of Afghanistan, it is important to kill many of them before you die,” he told the class.
The language barriers between Adraskan’s instructors and its recruits worsened when the Italians took over the ANCOP training mission here in late 2009, according to Afghan Lt. Col. Shafiqullah Taheri, the deputy commander for training at Adraskan.
Before the Italians arrived, English-speaking Dyncorp contractors trained the ANCOP recruits, and the process was better, Taheri said.
These days, with many Italian instructors not speaking English and most translators not speaking Italian, much gets lost in translation. Nearly all the trainees speak only Dari or Pashto, but when translation is available, it’s offered only in Dari.
“The interpreters can’t translate [Italian] to the students,” Taheri said.
Worse, interpreters are often pulled away from classes, leaving trainers with no one to help them communicate.
One day in early December, Marine Lance Cpl. Chad Berry stood in front of a class of students. He waited for an Afghan instructor. He waited for an interpreter. The morning passed. No one came.
Berry, 21, of Dunlap, Tenn., couldn’t speak Dari and the recruits couldn’t speak English. There was no point to holding the class, so he canceled it.
Later that week, Berry was teaching a class on handcuffing procedures. It was a bit better; at least there was an Afghan instructor. But still no interpreter.
Some classes work with demonstrations, Berry said, but explaining what to do if someone tries to escape during handcuffing, he noted, “that’s more talking than showing.”
Were his students learning anything?
“I have no clue,” Berry said.
A ‘pass everybody’ mentality
While Afghans skate through training, the heat is on to quickly grow the police and army.
“In theory, if they don’t pass, they are dismissed,” said Italian Capt. Nicola Bonomi. “But that hasn’t happened.”
The “pass everybody” mentality is not unique to Adraskan, according to a report last year on Afghan security forces by Andrew Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
“Afghans often come out of the training system who have not really met training standards,” Cordesman wrote. “Essentially, if a police trainee shows up and attends the graduation ceremony, he … passes and is considered ‘trained.’ ”
Air Force Capt. Nicole Ashcroft, the public affairs officer for Beare, acknowledged the challenges trainers face.
“While quality is imperative, we do not have the time or capacity to train [police forces] to the standard of Western policemen,” she said in an email. “Most recruits enter the force illiterate and innumerate yet graduate with basic literacy, strong security skills and basic policing knowledge.”
Afghan Col. Fazl Ahmad Khalili, the Adraskan base commander, went further, insisting that all the recruits who graduate are ANCOP-certified.
“They are ready for everything,” Khalili said.
‘Numbers do not make good’
On graduation day in December, Janas Khan and his new ANCOP comrades were standing tall in their new police uniforms. They weren’t entirely uniform, however: The men had to buy their own epaulet stripes and stars for their lapels, and not everyone had been able to afford them.
“It is hard,” Khan said of the job that awaited him. “But it is our duty.”
As the Afghan national anthem played, a chorus of Afghan voices joined in for a moment, then receded.
It was just like a U.S. military ceremony, full of pomp and command speeches. Except for the parts where graduates regularly broke formation to take cellphone footage of others marching past them. Some in the back row sat down.
“In a few days, your life will change,” Italian Lt. Col. Tulio Mott, the head of training at Adraskan, told the men.
“What they really need are numbers,” Mott said a few days earlier. “But numbers do not make good.”
Afghan police have recently borne the brunt of deaths among Afghan and NATO forces. In 2010, 1,250 Afghan policemen were killed, compared with 806 Afghan soldiers and 499 American troops, according to a February report by the Congressional Research Service.
But here at Adraskan, they have to keep graduating them and send them on their way. There is no time to slow down and make sure every recruit knows what he’s doing.
“They are [expletive] meat,” a NATO trainer said after one particularly frustrating day. “They will be dead within a week.”