West Point aids Afghan counterpart
By Alexa James
February 02, 2009
From a makeshift compound in Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul, professor Bruce Keith watched as thousands of young men from every corner of the war-torn country showed up to take a test.
A high score on the entrance exam, similar to the SAT, could earn them a spot at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, a fledgling officer-training program offering bachelor's degrees and commissions with the Afghan national army.
"It's an extraordinary opportunity for the kids who are selected," said Keith, who teaches sociology and serves as associate dean for academic affairs at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He volunteered, along with a rotating team of West Point colleagues, as a mentor at the new Afghan-run academy.
Keith is accustomed to the highly competitive application process at West Point, but he'd never seen anything like that entrance exam in Afghanistan.
On a sweltering outdoor field of concrete, proctors lined up more than 1,000 metal folding chairs.
Afghans arrived from every province and ethnic group. Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks — any unmarried man under the age of 24 could apply. They filled all the chairs.
"We had (applicants) walking several days to arrive at the military academy, just so they would have the opportunity to participate in this selection process," Keith said.
Each man got a tiny pencil, "like the size you get at a golf course. ... No desks. No breaks."
Candidates worked on their exams for hours, vying for only 270 spots and a small window to a future.
Four years later, on Jan. 25, 84 of those candidates graduated in the Afghan academy's first commencement. President Hamid Karzai presented an officer's saber to each of them. Now they owe 10 years apiece to the Afghan national army.
Every grad also carries a rare document — a college diploma — and with it, the hopes of a weary nation.
As the United States contemplates sending more divisions to Afghanistan, the country struggles to become a viable place. It needs a solid military, but also sophisticated academia. Decades of war with the Soviets, then the Taliban, destroyed the country's professional class. There's no one left to teach or trade, to build roads and bridges.
"An entire generation of engineers is missing," said Col. Stephen Ressler, a civil engineering professor at West Point who volunteered at the Afghan academy in 2007. He helped cobble together the few remaining Afghan instructors and build a new curriculum.
The men and women he worked with, Ressler said, "knocked my socks off with their enthusiasm." Though largely self-taught, their technical skills were good, and they'd learned English, under Taliban rule, by surreptitiously listening to BBC radio. Putting these professionals to work, Ressler said, will buffer a resurgent Taliban.
The Afghan academy's numbers have grown steadily since its inception in August 2003. More than 1,100 cadets will be enrolled by March, including 40 medical students and 10 women. By 2011, at least 10 percent of the student body should be female.
That's rapid progress. But against the backdrop of Afghanistan's many ills — a booming opium trade, deep tribal divisions and a U.S. presence in flux — is the academy's success just a dose of aspirin?
"I think people throughout the country see great value in the military academy," said Keith. "It's a huge cultural shift. You can't turn that over in a night."
The Army team insists the Afghans are in control and maintaining a body of students and faculty that reflects the country's ethnic makeup.
"What you have to do is put the onus of learning on the Afghans," Keith said. "It's going to be messy. It's going to have all kinds of problems, but the reality is, it's going to be better than what we brought over because it will be theirs."