Over the next year, the Afghan Army, Air Force, and Afghan National Police will continue to grow and professionalize. This is critical as Afghan infantry kandaks (battalions) replace ISAF combat forces during the transition process. As ISAF combat forces are reduced over the next several years, NATO will increase its efforts to advise and assist the Afghan military and police to develop critical enabling and support capabilities.

With its own logistic capability, the army will eventually be able to deliver supplies to forward deployed units. With its own explosive ordinance disposal units, the army will soon be able to detect and to defuse improvised explosive devices left by insurgents; and with its own air force, Afghanistan will at last have the capability to support its forces in the field.

Professionalization is essential to securing the gains made by the Coalition in the battlespace and reaping the return on the international investment in the training base. One lesson learned from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan is the necessity to develop an indigenous training base, which is the key to creating an enduring force. The abandoned aircraft at Shindand pictured here serve as a stark reminder to what can happen if Afghanistan does not develop self-sustaining systems—even the most advanced aircraft can quickly turn into unusable scrap metal.

To safeguard the international investment, NATO is building an Afghan training and education infrastructure and logistics system. With few exceptions, all military and police training takes place in Afghanistan. The Afghan training system has been transforming over the past two years; the composition of trainers has shifted from contractors to international military and police to Afghans. In fact, by December 2012, Afghans will be in the lead for training as Coalition trainers shift focus to systems development. This important shift would not be possible without a concerted effort to undo the damage the Taliban committed against the country’s education system.

An unfortunate reality is that those eligible for military and police service had their education stolen by decades of war. While Afghans have a proud warrior ethos and tactical intelligence, recruits lack the ability to write their names or count to ten. Illiteracy impairs a police officer from checking and understanding documents at a checkpoint and prevents a soldier from requesting a medical evacuation because he cannot read a map.

To make up for this shortfall, all Afghan military and police recruits are now enrolled in mandatory literacy programs to ensure they reach the international standard for literacy. Currently, NTM-A employs about 3,000 Afghan teachers who are following Afghan Ministry of Education guidelines to help recruits overcome the illiteracy barrier. The international investment in the literacy program is showing progress; the literacy rate in the army and police will be twice that of the population in 2012 enabling the professionalization of the force.

To be sure, literacy is the foundation for advanced specialty and vocational training to ensure Afghans can operate and maintain internationally-donated equipment. Today, Afghans are studying to be mechanics, engineers, and logisticians. These specialty skills are critical for developing the institutional side of the military and the police to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, IV., United States Army, has served as the commander of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan since November 2009. Parts of this essay appeared in FPRI E-Note, “Beyond the Tenth Year in Afghanistan: Security Force Assistance and International Security.”