SOME recruits left behind jobs as tailors or farmers. Others came straight from university.
This week the first class of Afghanistan’s new officer training academy were welcomed with a haircut and a uniform.
For the next 42 weeks they will undergo intensive training to turn them into officers ready to lead the line against the Taleban, in a UK-funded effort to build a better Afghan army. Nicknamed Sandhurst in the Sand, the facilities taking shape on the outskirts of Kabul will be Britain’s only military contribution to security once Nato combat operations end next year. About 120 mentors – mostly Brits – will support Afghan trainers in a £75 million commitment for a decade.
Lieutenant General John Lorimer, Nato’s second-in-command in Afghanistan, said the recruits would provide strong leadership at the lower levels of the army once they passed out. In a decade, they would be commanding companies.
“If we can’t do anything other than provide really strong leaders, I can’t think of a better thing to do: Help them get some really strong platoon commanders and future senior commanders of the Afghan National Army,” he said.
Recruits have been arriving from across Afghanistan this week. Yesterday, they began their first full day of training, marching up and down a gravel-filled parade ground or learning the gym moves they will come to hate in the weeks ahead.
Some 10,000 applied for places. They were gradually whittled down to 270 for the first class.
For now, they sleep and study in tents. But eventually the complex, set beneath the hills that surround Kabul, will include an impressive array of classrooms and mess facilities.
The newly-shorn recruits are joining an army that faces stiff challenges. It has taken heavy casualties since assuming responsibility for security from Nato in June. The Taleban have stepped up their attacks in an attempt to undermine confidence.
At the same time, the army is losing troops at a rate of 3 per cent a month – from casualties and desertions. At that level, they need to recruit 50,000 men a year just to retain their strength of about 150,000.
Donors – including Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Denmark – hope that a new generation of motivated officers will help retain soldiers.
The academy will house 1,200 officer cadets when it is fully operational next year. All aspects of life are modelled on Sandhurst, which has turned out leaders of the British Army for centuries.
Candidates were put through a similar selection process, having to prove their leadership credentials with planks, buckets and imaginary shark-infested rivers. The process was anonymous, with applicants known only by numbers, to prevents Afghanistan’s patronage system working to secure places for the sons of generals and politicians.
For all the similarities, British officers are keen to stress the academy has been adapted for Afghanistan. Brigadier Maurice Sheen, chief mentor, who has spent the past year helping set up the academy, said: “It’s an Afghan institution, not a poor imitation of something going on in Camberley”
So lecturers will drop courses on Wellington’s tactics at Waterloo and instead focus on lessons learned from Britain’s disastrous 19th-century campaigns in Afghanistan. Lectures will include the 1842 Battle of Gandamack, when Afghans finished off the remnants of a 16,000-strong column of British and Indian forces as it retreated from Kabul.
Lt Gen Lorimer said: “Clearly it’s an Afghan programme, with Afghan instructors but the core nuggets of Sandhurst are there: the academic aspects, learning from Afghan military history, it’s about discipline, self-discipline and discipline as a team, it’s about selfless commitment and it’s about integrity.”
Brigadier General Muhammad Sharif Sharifi, commandant of the academy, thanked Britain for the support. “This is a momentous opportunity. We will have the chance to train a generation of Afghan warriors who will be excellent leaders and who will serve with distinction.”