With the Afghan Army


Kabul, Afghanistan

The half dozen cadets at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan stood straight and tall in the cramped room they share with six others. I asked, “Are you worried about graduating and going to fight the Taliban?” They smiled. “If you are afraid, you are not here,” one said in English.

Seeing these self-assured young men, each of whom has beat out five others for one of the 300 places in the freshman class, it’s not hard to understand why the Afghan National Army is one of the unqualified success stories of coalition nation-building efforts. “Since April, the ANA has not lost an engagement with the insurgency,” says Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, in six eastern Afghan provinces. A 2006 survey showed that 91% of Afghans in the volatile eastern provinces had “a lot” or “some” confidence in the ANA.

Beginning in 2002 with a few dozen officers, the ANA is now 50,000 strong. Most have come through the Kabul Military Training Center (KMTC), which currently puts 5,000 men at a time through a 10-week Basic Warrior Training course modeled on the program at Fort Benning, Ga. A kandak, or battalion, of 1,000 soldiers leaves to fight every two weeks, each one deploying as a unit in a province where security is iffy. Just two corps of the army are in the stable northern and western provinces; three are in the south and east.

The KMTC replaces academies that ceased to function during the war years, and represents a sea change in Afghan military culture. Instructors are no longer allowed to hit the students, and the laws of war are taught early on. Drill is kept to a minimum — “just enough for them to be soldiers,” as Brigadier Tim Allen, who mentors the ANA training command, puts it — with the focus on maneuvers.

The KMTC retains some distinctively Afghan aspects. One is the attention paid to ethnic balance. Another is basic literacy training. After four weeks of training, soldiers are tested for literacy in their mother tongue (Dari or Pashto) and sent for instruction accordingly. The most recent kandak to pass through was just 30% literate at the four-week mark; trainers admit that the 10-week course isn’t long enough to bring everyone up to full literacy. NCOs must be literate to enter training.

According to Maj. Jim Fisher, a reservist and the senior U.S. mentor for Basic Warrior Training, the dropout percentages are in the low 20s. Not every recruit has what it takes, and some soldiers turn out to have left home without telling their families, who find out and implore them to return. Others turn out to be under the age minimum, 17. And some, faced with a deployment in a dangerous area in a remote province, instead elect to join the Afghan National Police near their homes. This option has grown in popularity lately, since police salaries are due to reach parity with the army in January.

In some eastern and southern provinces, recruits face Taliban intimidation. Many recruits admitted to me that they do not wear their uniforms home on vacation.

Officers follow a different path. A British-run officer training school, established in 2006 and based on Sandhurst, has graduated around 100 high school and college graduates. Now it is taking in 130 men in each class with a target output of 102 second lieutenants after the program.

The 630-student National Military Academy of Afghanistan (NMAA) is the gem of the system. Founded in March 2005 and modeled on West Point, it’s currently admitting classes of 300 cadets and expecting a 25% attrition rate. It will admit women as 10% of the student body in 2011, when female dorms are ready. The applicant pool has been steadily rising, mainly by word of mouth, with 1,200 applying last year and 1,800 this year. All the professors are Afghan, with the exception of the instructors in foreign languages.

Everything at the NMAA is geared to producing a national army free of regional and ethnic biases. Even their living quarters take ethnic and regional balance into account. In one random dormitory room I visited, the 12 cadets came from all over the country. In fact, these young men have been so well drilled that random questions about unrelated issues are apt to include a reference to the fact that “we are one Army for all of Afghanistan.”

ANA officer pay is decent by Afghan standards, but, as in the U.S., money would not be anyone’s primary motivation. A brigadier general makes $580 a month, a major $330, a second lieutenant $210. The cadets I met seemed driven by patriotism and, in many cases, family tradition: As at West Point, many cadets have relatives who are officers.

Col. Scott Hamilton, a graduate of West Point and a civil engineering professor there, terms the achievement “staggering.” “Imagine starting a four-year liberal arts college from scratch,” he says. “And then imagine that in Afghanistan.”

Ms. Marlowe is the author of “The Book of Trouble” (Harcourt, 2006), a memoir.

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