American military leaders in Afghanistan constantly complain about the reality of how few Afghan soldiers are able to read and write which they believe is a major hindrance to becoming a fighting soldier. As General Caldwell notes: “how do you expect a soldier to account for his weapon if he can’t even read the serial number?” An interesting question, but one might ask, “how many members of the Taliban are able to read and write?” There is overwhelming evidence Taliban fighters have about the same literary or illiteracy rates as those fighting for the Afghanistan government, but they continue to be dedicated to their cause. During the Vietnam war, soldiers fighting with Communist forces were not necessarily able to read and write. The issue is not being able to read a serial number on a weapon, but having conviction that what one fights to achieve is important to your own values and ideals.
A more important question is desertion rates. At present, about 23% of Afghan soldiers desert and either return home or join the Taliban. Obviously, we lack figures on Taliban desertion rates, but there is scant doubt they are much lower. The issue has been and will be– how can the Afghan government offer its people a vision of competence, honesty and dedication to their interests. And, that does not require literacy.