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Combating Computer Illiteracy In Afghanistan

Benjamin Tupper is a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and the author of Greetings from Afghanistan, Send More Ammo.

My biggest contribution to the Afghanistan war effort had nothing to do with combat victories against the Taliban. It occurred in a cramped hut about as far away as you can get from the battlefield. This was both office and barracks for the six-man Afghan National Army administrative staff section, known in Dari as the "Pe-john."

When I arrived, the Pe-john was operating at a medieval technological level. They had large tablets of blank paper, stubby pencils and nothing more. These conditions suffocated their initiative and intelligence. One unassuming, shy Afghan sergeant we called "Cor-ee" was computer literate. He was short, with a boyish face and an extremely soft voice. Yet he commanded great respect from all the Afghan soldiers -- in part because he was extremely competent, in part because he could recite the Quran from memory and in part because he stood between the soldiers and their monthly pay.

One day, I stumbled upon a large stack of dusty boxes in our storage trailer. They turned out to contain Dell computers, pre-loaded with Dari-compatible programs and Dari keyboards. I ran to my American commander's office to inform him of my find.

He told me that previous American commanders had determined the Afghans were too ignorant to use the computers. And training them would be a distraction from our primary effort of killing the enemy and ending the war. He said the computers would remain locked away because the Afghan soldiers would "break them, steal them or sell them."

After I pestered him for days, he released one computer. We set it up for Cor-ee, who politely edged me out of his rusty chair and proclaimed, "I know what to do!" With that single computer, Cor-ee brought his Pe-john admin section from the dark ages to a modern office, capable of printing, copying and distributing reports. Within days, record keeping improved, efficiency improved and ultimately, the productivity of the entire battalion improved.

So my commander released all of the computers to all of the Afghan battalion's staff and command sections. Cor-ee stayed up late every night teaching other soldiers how to use spreadsheets and produce Word documents. He was the troubleshooter when the computers crashed. Cor-ee became the most valuable man in the unit.

This is the moment I look back on as my most successful contribution to the war effort. I was able to help an Afghan soldier defeat an enemy that rivals the strength of the Taliban: our prejudices against the capabilities of the Afghan people and their capacity to succeed.

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