A strange new institution is rising from the dust in the mountains west of Kabul. The foreigners here call it the Sandhurst in the Sand. Those who work at the new British-led military school, which welcomed its first cadets last week, prefer the more cumbersome ‘ANA-OA’, short for Afghan National Army Officers Academy (though the Australians who guard the place call it ‘Duntroon in the Desert’ after their own Sandhurst equivalent).
Whichever name sticks, the ‘Afghan Sandhurst’ will be perhaps the only significant British contribution to Afghanistan’s security after the Nato mission finishes at the end of next year. Some see it as a way of making up for our costly mistakes of the last 12 years, beginning with the decision to take responsibility for Helmand, the Afghan province with the deepest historical hatred for Britain, closely followed by the deployment there of too small a military force, commanded by overconfident generals.
In any case, the academy represents a remarkable and radical experiment in social engineering. The whole idea of an Afghan Sandhurst is the dreamchild not of the British government but Afghanistan’s formidable chief of general staff, General Sher Mohamed Karimi, who attended Sandhurst from 1966 to 1968, and who is said to be in the habit of telling people that if he had an army led by his fellow cadets, the war against the Taleban would be over.
Karimi’s dreams have borne fruit. You can see an old-fashioned Britishness in the neatness of the tented temporary facilities, in the bearing of the instructors and in the commitment to continue the mentoring mission here until 2023. (The Americans, on the other hand, have all but abandoned their recently opened Afghan version of West Point.) Both the British regimental quartermaster and the regimental sergeant major are straight out of central casting: tall, crisp, fit and formidable, with voices that carry over the entire campus. It’s not surprising that the Afghan faculty emulate their style. Of course, the latter are hardly typical ANA soldiers. The commandant, Brigadier Sharif, was trained by the Soviets and later studied at the Indian Staff College. His deputy, Lt Col Hussein, attended the Staff College at Shrivenham, and his chief of staff, Lt Col Mangal, attended both Sandhurst and Staff College. Others have been trained in Germany or the United States. They exude an almost painful professionalism and eagerness.
Then there’s the British officer responsible for setting up the Sandhurst in the Sand: Brigadier Maurice Sheen, former colonel-commandant of the Royal Logistics Corps, who was brought out of retirement by the MoD specifically to do the job. The sort of commander who knows the names and backgrounds of even the lowliest kitchen worker, Sheen has an avuncular, schoolmasterly air, and he was in fact once a public school housemaster. He also has the unique qualification of having re-established Iraq’s military academy in 2005-06. That original ‘Sandhurst in the Sand’ was one of the relative successes of the coalition mission in Iraq. Sheen himself was famous for singlehandedly defusing an incipient battle there between mutinous Shiite troops and the academy’s quick reaction force. He was so admired by the US general in charge of the allied training mission that the general pleaded unsuccessfully with London to allow him to stay on after his term was over. That general, Martin Dempsey, is now America’s chief of general staff — a useful ally for any coalition commander when it comes to negotiating for resources with either ISAF or the Afghan defence ministry.
Sheen dislikes the sobriquet ‘Sandhurst in the Sand’, partly because it’s secondhand but mostly because (he says) they’re not trying to reproduce Sandhurst, but to create a hybrid designed for the needs of the Afghan army and reflecting the country’s own military traditions and style. Some of this takes a bit of getting used to for the British. For instance, the Afghans march with their traditional Soviet-style goose step, and hold hands in order to keep time.
On the other hand, the British insist on imposing a very alien aspect of western military culture: the training of officer cadets by their social and educational inferiors. At the real Sandhurst, it is taken for granted that officer cadets should be trained — and shouted at — by sergeants and other non-commissioned officers.
That is a hard sell here in Afghanistan. But if officer cadets get used to it, the thinking goes, and start seeing the sergeants as experts worthy of respect, it could just change the way the Afghan army fights.
Will it work? Will this new Sandhurst transform the Afghan army? I heard doubts about the project from some British soldiers here who served in Helmand and who witnessed the Afghan security forces and government officials at their lazy, corrupt and abusive worst. But Sheen and his colleagues are quick to remind sceptics, and their Afghan colleagues, that meritocratic promotions are relatively recent developments, even in Britain. Until the late 19th century you could buy a regimental command and, even more recently, top jobs tended to go to toffs, or to the sons of senior officers. They point out that many of the cadets will come from regions of Afghanistan and from family backgrounds which are very different from those encountered by British troops in Helmand.
Another big question is over what level of quality it would be right to expect of staff, officer candidates, and their training. ISAF troops use the phrase ‘Afghan good-enough’ to mean ‘the best that can be hoped for’.
Sheen and his colleagues are hoping to strike a balance between this and the standards required of a first world officer corps. Cadets here don’t have to be trained for the same variety of missions as a Sandhurst cadet — they just have to be ready to lead troops in combat after 42 weeks, and to believe in the idea of a multi-ethnic Afghanistan. To that end, the curriculum includes much instruction in core values and military history, with emphasis on Afghan victories against the British and Russians, as well as picking out sections from the Koran that emphasise an officer’s duty to serve as well as lead.
In some ways the academy may not be as big a gamble as it might seem from London. Afghanistan is, after all, a very different society from a decade ago. The culture and economy have been enriched by the return of more than five million former exiles (as well as by billions of dollars in aid), and the academy will be recruiting its cadets from a bigger, younger, much better-educated population.
If it all works, it will mean the creation of a genuinely meritocratic, genuinely national institution that produces leaders with integrity and self-discipline. And that would be a revolutionary development in this part of the world.