I recently had the opportunity to visit Shindand Air Force Base near Herat, in western Afghanistan. Shindand is where we train our future aviators. It will also house our Commando Brigade and a Regional Training Centre where we will conduct basic combat training.
To get the full appreciation for the magnitude of the construction project, I toured the compound by helicopter. As we rose to about 1000 feet above the base, I was given a panoramic perspective of the development and was awestruck by the enormity of the undertaking.
Later, when I spoke to the soldiers and leaders on the base, I explained to them why Shindand was so important to the future of the Afghan National Army (ANA). I also emphasized that we could not accomplish our mission of building the ANA without the help of our coalition partners - specifically the U.S. I also stressed to the soldiers and future airmen how much we should appreciate all that has been done for us and our nation.
During the aerial tour I also observed a grave reminder of our past. Within the Shindand garrison, there is a large junk pile of MiG fighter jets, Russian tanks and armoured vehicles that were given to the Afghans by the Soviet Union in the 1970s. The equipment was not destroyed in combat. Rather, it fell into disrepair as result of poor maintenance and a lack of parts. The Russians did not create the capacity for sustainment. And most importantly, they did not provide the training to learn how to maintain what they gave us.
The sight of that trash heap caused me to pause, and reflect: “What must we do to not repeat this fiasco of the past?”
Three things came to mind. First and foremost, we have to develop our leaders and provide good training for our soldiers. Growing leaders and educating our soldiers is paramount to building and enduring capability. Second, we have to emphasize professionalism within our Army. Finally, we must continue to share our story with our civilian leadership and our fellow Afghans about the progress the ANA is making every day.
I entered service through the Military Academy in Kabul in 1965. I was the first Afghan to graduate from Sandhurst in Great Britain, and I had the benefit of Infantry, Airborne, Ranger and Special Forces training in the U.S., I know the value of good training and have experienced its advantages. I want our Army to provide the same opportunities to our future soldiers, non-commissioned officers and officers.
With the support of our coalition partners, Afghanistan will have state-of-the-art facilities to train the future leaders of our nation. The Afghan National Security University (AFNSU) is a 105 acre, $245 million project that is being constructed in Qargha, a majestic location on the outskirts of Kabul.
The AFNSU will consist of the National Military Academy (our version of West Point), the Afghan National Army Officer’s Academy (similar to Sandhurst), the Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) Academy and six other schools focused on educating our future leaders. Essentially, prospective officers and NCOs within the ANA will have the good fortune to have the same outstanding training I had in Great Britain and the U.S.all in one location. The officers and NCOs who graduate these institutions will be well prepared to train and lead our soldiers.
During a recent visit to the Kabul Military Training Centre (KMTC), our premiere training facility, I observed soldiers going through basic combat training. In the past, coalition trainers would have been in the centre leading our soldiers through the drills with the help of translators. Now, Afghan NCOs and officers are in the lead. This seems like a simple thing, but it is an extremely important transition in building for the future.
Referring back to the Shindand example, a significant contributor to that failing was the fact we did not have Afghan leaders who could train the soldiers to maintain their equipment. We are now creating the leadership capacity and enduring capability to train our Army ourselves. We are also dedicating considerable time and resources to training our soldiers in tasks not normally associated with the Army.
Arguably, the most important training we carry out has nothing to do with weapons, physical fitness, or field exercises. One of the most essential training events the ANA conducts daily is teaching our soldiers to read. The illiteracy rate in Afghanistan is over 72 per cent. It was higher than that in the 1970s when the Soviets provided us the equipment that now occupies the junk yard in Shindand.
One of the reasons we could not maintain the Russian vehicles and aircraft was because our soldiers and airmen could not read maintenance manuals, even though they were in our own language.
In July, we surpassed 100,000 soldiers who have attained a first grade reading level through the Army’s literacy program. But the training does not stop there, it continues throughout a soldier’s career. The goal is for all soldiers to have a third grade reading level by the end of 2014. Literacy not only makes it easier to train our soldiers, it increases their confidence and makes them more likely to stay in the service to receive the additional education the Army provides.
Education and training of soldiers, non-commissioned officers and officers are just two components of our larger goal of professionalizing the Army.
In a recent poll, Afghans deemed their Army the most respected profession in the country. Our goal is to build on that reputation so the Army becomes a viable and desired occupation for the Afghan people.
Professions like law, medicine and military service have several characteristics. Two I have already discussed; education that provides a unique skill and continuous training and learning.
Other aspects of a profession include recruitment of high quality personnel, promotion and assignments based on merit, self-policing to maintain the integrity of the profession and good stewardship of resources.
The Army must be a profession that is based on merit. Officers and non-commissioned officers must be promoted based on their performance, potential and ability, not on factors unrelated to their tactical and technical skills and leadership attributes. While we ensure ethnic balance in our service so our Army is representative of our nation, soldiers should advance on merit, not because of who they know.
Overcoming this legacy system of nepotism requires men and women who choose to serve knowing they have every opportunity to reach their full potential and achieve their aspirations.
In order to meet that expectation we are focused on recruiting quality candidates to serve in the Army. We have absolutely no problem reaching our recruiting goals. Therefore, we are unconcerned with quantity. Our goal is quality.
We accept only the very best into our ranks. As a result we turned away nearly 1,700 applicants in one month because they did not meet our standards. Only by taking the highest quality of people into the ANA will we circumvent an epidemic that has plagued our nation for some time.
An unfortunate statistic in Afghanistan is that it ranks 187th of 188 nations for transparency and adherence to rule of law. We are still recovering from the era of the Taliban, warlordism, and 30 years of war. However, corruption has no place in the ANA and eliminating it from the Army is a main concern of mine.
Allegations of corruption will be investigated. However, my expectation is that we watch each other to ensure we do not dishonor our nation, our families, or ourselves. We have to take care of one another. We also must take proper care of the resources provided to us by the citizens ofAfghanistanand the international community.
While I tend to blame the Soviets for creating the conditions that resulted in the dumps at Shindand, I also realize the destruction of those valuable assets was also due to our neglect. We absolutely cannot allow that to occur with all that has been given to us by our coalition partners. To be professionals demands that we be good stewards of our facilities, weapons, vehicles, equipment and other resources. The ANA’s greatest resource is our soldiers.
Another alarming statistic in our Army is the amount of attrition we experience. It is no secret that the ANA has challenges with this issue, whether it is soldiers who go absent and do not return or others who choose to depart the Army after their initial term of enlistment.
Attrition is not a systemic problem across the force. Some units have no attrition issues. In units with high morale, high re-enlistment rates and low attrition, I have found one indisputable correlation – good leadership. This is why developing good leaders and creating a professional Army are my top two priorities.
However, my third priority may be the most difficult to achieve. To prevent Shindand junk piles of the future requires citizens and leaders who understand ANA capabilities and support the soldiers, non-commissioned officers and officers. Without the backing of the population, the ANA cannot accomplish its mission. If Afghans are to support their Army, they must understand what the Army does for them.
Our Army has grown from a force of 30,000 in the early years of the war to 70,000 and now we are near 170,000 strong. Our goal is to reach a strength of 195,000 by November 2012.
Between August 2011 and March 2012, the ANA will receive more than 22,000 vehicles, 38 aircraft, almost 40,000 weapons, and communications equipment all at the cost of around $2.7 billion U.S. dollars. In addition, the U.S. government has donated 500 armored security vehicles worth $600 million to form the core of the ANA’s Mobile Strike Force, whose mission will be to respond to crisis and threats throughout the country.
Our Army is the best it has been in my 45-year career – no comparison.
However, it is not clear to me that all Afghans appreciate the capabilities we currently possess and, more importantly, the potency we will achieve when the coalition draws down and we assume the lead in protecting our borders and defeating our internal threats. If everyone in Afghanistan knew the lethality of their Army, the Taliban and our other enemies would not find sanctuary in the few areas where we are currently fighting.
I will depend on the soldiers of the ANA to show them. Well trained and educated officers, non-commissioned officers and enlisted soldiers who possess the newest and best equipment and live in state-of-the-art facilities will demonstrate the prowess of our Army.
When the ANA finally brings peace to Afghanistan, it is my dream that we transition to other missions beyond our defense - tasks like responding to natural disasters and providing humanitarian assistance. It is my hope that one day we will be able to repay our friends and partners who helped us in our time of need by participating in peacekeeping operations in support of the United Nations and other international organizations.
We will secure this as our future by not repeating the failures of the past.
Biography of General Sher Mohammad Karimi.