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Marine Corps Teach Afghan Cops How to Read

Three days a week, members of the Afghan police and army meet for literacy lessons in Garmsir, Afghanistan.
As part of our continuing coverage of "Afghanistan: the Road Ahead," CBS News correspondent Terry McCarthy follows the Third Battalion, First Marines at home, and abroad in Afghanistan.

Two remarkable statistics: out of all the people arrested by the local police and convicted of any crime in Garmsir in southern Afghanistan - all the way from petty thievery to placing bombs in the road aiming to kill - 98 percent are overturned and released on appeal, mostly due to lack of evidence or coherent written documentation. Only 2 percent have to endure their sentences.

Here is the other remarkable statistic. In Garmsir, only 7 percent of the recruits to the police force can read and write. With 93 percent illiteracy, it is small wonder that so much police work fails to stand up to judicial scrutiny. It may seem tautological to point this out - but how can a cop read someone their rights or write up a charge sheet - if that cop cannot read or write in the first place?

"If you ask me, we gotta go right back to the basics," says Master Sergeant Jason Cawthon, who is in charge of training the Afghan police in Garmsir. After 9 years of supposed efforts to train the Afghan police force - initially led by the German contingent of NATO forces here - it is becoming very clear that progress has been very slow. The police are unpopular and distrusted across much of the south of the country, corruption is endemic, and even straight cops are often unable to obtain statements or process a crime scene properly due to their lack of literacy skills. Now the U.S. has taken over much of the responsibility for police training, and people like Master Sgt. Cawthon are sending the cops back to school, literally. "I truly believe it's going to be the success of the country," says Cawthon, who is from Fredericksburg, Virginia - "making sure they are literate and capable and able to read and write."

And so the Marine Corps, normally known for aggressively attacking their enemy on beaches, deserts, jungles and wherever else they are sent, have now begun teaching Afghans to read and write - warriors turned teachers.

Three days a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, from 5 to 7 pm, Cawthon has organized literacy lessons for 30 Afghan police and army members, with the goal of getting them to read at 3rd grade levels. The course is meant to last three months. The men (and they are all men) sit cross-legged on the floor of a small room in the district governor's compound, working with children's reading books with simple pictures of birds, trees, animals and so on, following a teacher who writes simple words on a blackboard.

But as an indication of how challenging Cawthon's job is, the policemen have to be paid $30 a month just to persuade them to turn up to the classes - that is about a 10 percent addition to their monthly salaries, just to get them to learn something without which they can't really do their job in the first place.

Cawthon, a 20-year veteran who has had a colorful career with the Marines, from serving in the infantry to acting as the head of security for General Peter Pace, the former head of the Joint Chiefs, is not one to make judgments. He is a pragmatist. "I think it's going to be extremely beneficial and pay huge dividends in the long run - educating them and making them understand that education is the right passage"

And when I ask him why after 9 years we are only now discovering that literacy is a root problem in the Afghan police force, he just gives a broad smile and shakes his head.

"That," he says, "is a very good question."

More of Terry McCarthy's "Thundering Third" Blogs:

A Day in the Life: Wardak, Afghanistan

Preaching to the Corps

Bedtime Stories From Marines to Children Back Home

Sweet Surprise at Afghanistan's Lakari Bazaar

Education Makes a Comeback in Afghanistan

"Thundering Third" Marines Deploy

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