When Maj. Tim Isberg of the Canadian Armed Forces was posted to Afghanistan last year, he had no idea he would help create a national birthright that could change the course of a nation’s history.
The chain of command had requested his participation in NATO-led $200 million language and literacy programs for Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), military and police.
In the last few years, the international military coalition has gradually reduced its presence. As the NATO-led coalition worked with the Afghan government to increase the number of native military and police recruits, they discovered literacy was a massive problem.
After decades of war and a decimated public education infrastructure, only about 29 per cent of Afghan adults can read. To leave the Afghan forces in a strong position, NATO administered the language and literacy programs so tens of thousands of illiterate individuals could learn basic reading, writing and numeracy skills.
“Literacy is the foundation to a professional force. It also enhances the quality of training. Now they can read manuals, reports, licence plates or an ID card. If a soldier or a police officer can’t read, how is he going to be effective?” asks Isberg.
So far, more than 250,000 Afghan national army and police have been trained in basic reading, and more than 70,000 are functionally literate. Tens of thousands more recruits from ages 18 to 50 are in the program’s classes.
For young Canadian soldiers, a tour of Afghanistan is a rite of passage. But Isberg, a 28-year veteran, didn’t need another notch in his belt. During his extensive career, he was deployed to Rwanda with successive tours in Israel, Syria and Lebanon. Training exercises took him across Europe and the Arctic.
“Because I was available, it was important for me to go,” Isberg said. “When I decided to go, it was for all the right reasons. I hadn’t been to Afghanistan and in the end I wanted to go.”
Isberg deplaned in Kabul for a six-month tour starting in June 2013. Although he was employed as lieutenant-colonel, a vaguely-worded job description listed him as “language staff officer.”
Isberg was assigned to Camp Eggers, a predominantly American military base in the heart of Kabul. The typical quarters were three Sea-Can style shipping containers stacked on top of each other. Isberg was shown to a cramped container he shared with another officer. The quarters were just big enough to contain two bunk beds, two closets and a desk.
“There was no room for anything else. But it was better than a field tent,” Isberg chuckles.
His initial role was to provide English-language training to 750 Afghan pilots and mechanics. English is the aviation language worldwide and is a critical skill set required for flying and repairing aircraft.
“I went on the understanding I was to help run the English-language training program for aviation training. Within days I was appointed chief of the entire language and literacy division. Some staff running the literacy division were re-deployed and leaving Afghanistan, and they were not being replaced.”
The literacy program was monstrous in scope. It was open to Afghan security, police and military and was taught in two native languages: Dari and Pashtun.
Although the United States congress had allocated the full $200 million cost (spread out over four years), the programs were initially punctuated with problems due to a lack of scrutiny.
“There were signs of fraud, mismanagement and lack of oversight. It was critical to the professionalism of the forces, but it needed better control measures, management and focus to ensure the money spent was getting full value,” Isberg said.
“The program also needed the full co-operation of the Afghan leadership to make sure their personnel could attend the training.”
For Isberg the tour became a 12-hour a day, seven-day a week job trying to understand all the intricacies.
“It was an immense challenge – needing to understand what we needed to fix and what to leave alone. So much was involved that it was one of the most challenging deployments of my career. Rwanda had a significant impact on me. But this job and this program affected the entire country.”
In addition to bringing in a curriculum, hiring contractors and teachers, Isberg worked with three Afghan ministries and held briefings for embassy personnel and senior generals.
But while he returned to Edmonton feeling a great sense of accomplishment, each of the students that received a certificate of literacy probably enjoyed a greater sense of achievement.
Isberg stresses the human dimension the program has created. When one recruit sent his first letter to parents, they cried with joy. On another occasion, after an Afghan official sent a letter to elders congratulating one of the village’s young recruits, he was treated to a hero’s welcome.
“There’s an underlying pride and achievement from the individuals, the family and the village. It’s a celebratory affair for everyone. I hope it’s a slow wave that sweeps into a tsunami providing another tool against the Taliban.”
Ultimately, improving literacy is a way to free villagers from the grip of radical elders who in many isolated areas are the main source of information about how the world operates.
“Literacy is an underestimated weapon against the Taliban. In a village of high unemployment, poverty, fear and terror, the villagers rely on the elders to tell them who to believe, who not to believe, what to fight and what not to fight. Any literate solider will one day be a more literate and discerning citizen of his country,” Isberg said.
Past and present
Heading up the language and literacy division required the right man. And it seems that Isberg spent his whole life training for it.
Raised in Fort Macleod, he had a checkered youth as a singer-songwriter-musician, training horses and learning to set type letter-by-letter at the Fort Macleod Gazette. At Lethbridge College he studied conservation and law enforcement, and at one point did a stint as a paramedic.
As a blue beret military observer in Rwanda under Gen. Romeo Dallaire, Isberg provided humanitarian aid and investigated mass graves and killings. He was shot at, threatened and chased by a group of angry men with machetes. He was even awarded a commendation for assisting a vehicle carrying 10 passengers after it hit a roadside mine and exploded.
During multiple assignments in Israel, the Golan Heights, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, he was largely engaged as a political-military liaison. And in 2006 during the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict, Isberg assisted people in the evacuation from Lebanon through Syria to Jordan or Turkey.
“It was the clash of culture, politics and security. I was fascinated by it and it made me want to pursue a course in global studies.”
But Afghanistan was different. The world is seeing positive success with more schools opening and operating. There are great hopes that increasing literacy rates will create spill-overs and aid in the decrease of terrorism.
Now that Isberg is back home, he is working toward balancing his career in the Forces and his other passion – music.
“I’ve been fortunate my military career was eventful. Eclectic wouldn’t begin to describe it,” he says. “Now I’d like to continue to do something with a sense of purpose. The Afghan thing welded that into me.”
Back On Stage
In one of his first acoustic performances since his return from Afghanistan, Tim Isberg is playing at Jeffrey’s Café and Bar on Thursday, Feb. 20.