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Afghan Military Academy Opens Gates to Future Leaders

By Maj. Rick Peat and Lt. Col. Frederick Rice, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

KABUL, Afghanistan, March 28, 2005 – The new National Military Academy of Afghanistan celebrated its grand opening March 22.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
A platoon of cadets marches in step as they pass the reviewing stand during the March 22 opening of the National Military Academy of Afghanistan. Photo by Capt. Jay Iannacito, USA

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Afghan government ministers, senior U.S. and Afghan military officers, special guests from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, including Dean of Academics Brig. Gen. Daniel Kaufman, as well as numerous ambassadors and other dignitaries attended the opening ceremony.

Maj. Gen. Mohammad Sharif, NMAA commander; Abdul Rahim Wardak, Afghanistan minister of defense; and Abdul Karim Khalili, second vice president of Afghanistan, were featured speakers at the event.

"The role of this academy is vital for the future of Afghanistan, because this academy will produce loyal, professional and true leaders for Afghanistan's future without any ethnic, language and tribal distinction," said Wardak. "These young cadets will be trained in the spirit of national unity and strong military character upon which we can be proud among the respective nations of the world."

Khalili emphasized the excellent reputation the ANA has built among the people of Afghanistan. "The people of Afghanistan appreciate and strongly support the good work of their integrated national army, which represents the true face of the Afghan nation," he said. "Today, we are going to open an institute which will train the future commanders and leaders of our proud army and of this hopeful nation."

During the ceremony, West Point and NMAA officials showed their mutual admiration and respect for each other's institutions through a gift exchange. Kaufman presented a West Point saber mounted in a display case, while Sharif offered a hand-carved wooden plaque of the NMAA shoulder sleeve insignia encased in a presentation box.

Sharif confidently vowed success during his address at the ceremony. "Through this podium, I promise to Defense Minister Wardak that we will do our best at teaching the cadets to international standards and in the spirit of national unity," he said.

The first class of cadets completed seven challenging weeks of basic training on March 17 and began their first day of academic classes the day following the academy's grand opening. The cadets represent all of the major ethnic groups throughout Afghanistan and traveled from literally every corner of the country, across rugged and undeveloped terrain and through blizzard-like conditions, to report to the academy. One cadet was more than 20 days late due to his travel troubles, but was welcomed and immediately integrated into the program.

Modeled after West Point, the academy is a four-year, degree-granting institution that will commission its cadets as second lieutenants in the Afghan National Army. Graduates will earn an engineering degree with an emphasis on civil, mechanical, systems or electrical engineering.

The curriculum focuses on engineering for a good reason. "Our country is war-struck and devastated," said Sharif. "We are in the process of rehabilitating it. We need more engineers, because we need reconstruction."

Planning for the academy began more than 18 months ago, when Army Maj. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, chief of OMCA at the time, and senior Afghan Ministry of Defense leaders agreed upon the need to establish a military academy that would provide the ANA with a highly educated and capable future officer corps. OMCA was ready to assist and quickly enlisted the help of the U.S. Military Academy.

Military academy study team chief Col. Barney Forsythe and Maj. Gen. Mohammad Juma Nassar, the defense ministry's general staff working group director, submitted the initial plan for the academy to the defense minister and the OMCA chief in November 2003.

West Point staff and faculty members then began the planning process, deploying to Afghanistan for several months at a time to write policy, develop admissions standards and determine the curriculum. They completed all steps hand in hand with their Afghan counterparts, ensuring all programs were adapted to meet Afghan standards and culture.

"Our environments are different," said Sharif, contrasting Afghanistan and the United States. "Planners considered all cultural aspects and did not impose anything on us. While the academy will be similar to West Point, it will not be the same."

The most significant challenges involved the logistical requirements of setting up the academy from scratch. "They didn't have so much as a paper clip on hand to get the academy started," said Col. Chris King, a West Point geography professor. "You have to find every little thing you need, things you take for granted."

To fill their faculty positions, the MOD identified 1,023 potential academic professors who possessed the necessary advanced degrees. Military academy implementation team chief Col. James Wilhite, West Point faculty and OMCA members Col. Ray Winkle, Col. Gary Krahn and Larry Butler then narrowed the list to 200 candidates with the desired qualifications to teach everything from world history to physics to chemistry to psychology. The team eventually hired 30 professors to form the academic faculty.

By the end of November 2004, 353 cadet candidates had completed the competitive entrance exam. The defense ministry, in conjunction with OMCA staff, then conducted personal interviews of the prospective cadets. The top 120 young men were offered a place in the first class.

Forsythe, who laid the groundwork for the academy 18 months ago, returned for the grand opening and remarked upon his impressions of seeing the concept turned into reality.

"The academy facility is excellent and represents the excellence that the Afghan government and ANA expect of the officer corps and their service," he said. "This institution could play a significant role for the emerging democracy in Afghanistan, much like West Point played a large role in the emerging United States of America; providing leaders of character who would serve the Army and their people. And at some point in time, when they left their service in uniform, would continue to serve the country in another capacity that further advances the nation."

The USMA corps of cadets recently adopted the NMAA corps of cadets as their first and only cadet corps partnership. They will correspond with each other, exchange ideas and share resources.

To fully care for the administrative and logistical needs of new academy, a 300-soldier NMAA support battalion will be assembled over the next year. West Point will continue to send faculty, administrators and support personnel as needed to assist in forming and training the support battalion and to further develop the NMAA faculty for the specific course work and curriculum being taught there.

More NMAA faculty will be hired as the corps of cadets grows over the next few years. Future classes will have between 250 to 300 students each, and upperclassmen will take on leadership roles in guiding the underclassmen.

Cadets, who are between the ages of 18 and 23, will earn $80 a month as well as receive free books, supplies, housing and food, in addition to their education. For the privilege of attending the academy, they incur a 10-year service commitment to the ANA, twice the commitment length of U.S. Military Academy cadets. But none of them blinked an eye when taking his oath of office.

Wilhite has grown very close to the NMAA corps of cadets during his work with the academy and will redeploy soon. Before the grand opening ceremony he made a point to shake the hand of each cadet and offer his personal congratulations. Later, when reflecting on the significance of this act, he remarked that he was likely shaking the hand of a future general, a future minister, a future president of Afghanistan.

Cadet Jamshaid, the top cadet of the NMAA, said, "As military officers, we will never step back from learning and will always be disciplined and remain faithful and loyal to our beloved country."

Hope and love of country are also shown by the cadets' parents. Cadet Aminullah, from Herat province, said his father provided special advice to him before leaving home to attend the academy. "Be faithful to your country," he said. "Afghanistan is like a mother. If you serve your mother, you have to serve your motherland too."

(Maj. Rick Peat and Lt. Col. Frederick Rice are assigned to the Office of Military Cooperation Afghanistan public affairs office.)

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