Afghan Sgt. Maj. of the Army Roshan Safi listens to a speaker during a ceremony in his honor at Kabul Military Training Center on Jan. 18, 2011.

Afghan Sgt. Maj. of the Army Roshan Safi listens to a speaker during a ceremony in his honor at Kabul Military Training Center on Jan. 18, 2011. (Ernesto Hernandez Fonte/U.S. Navy)

ZAGREB, Croatia — Illiteracy, nepotism and lack of equipment are among challenges the Afghan National Army’s noncommissioned officer corps faces, the service’s senior enlisted soldier told a gathering of U.S. and European NCO leaders here Wednesday.

Roshan Safi said his country is making progress as it nears its goal of a force of 195,000 soldiers. He spoke at the Conference of European Armies for Noncommissioned Officers.

“We will get there,” Safi said in an interview after his presentation. “If you look over time — where we were, where we are and where we are going — we are good.”

The Afghan National Army has been building steadily since 2001, after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban. The international community and Afghan government hope to have the Afghan army and police in charge of security operations in all Afghan provinces by the end of 2014.

A Pentagon progress report on the Afghan campaign in April described Afghan forces as “exceeding expectations,” noting that of 156 Afghan army kandaks, or battalions, 13 are rated as “independent with advisors,” the highest classification given.

Safi has risen through the Afghan National Army’s ranks since enlisting in late 2001. He was the first Afghan NCO to graduate from the U.S. Army’s Sergeants Major Academy in Fort Bliss, Texas, in 2006.

He has since been tasked with preparing a noncommissioned officer corps that has expanded faster than it can be trained. As the nation’s army closes in on its desired end-strength, the service is focusing more on capabilities, Safi said.

“We are starting very seriously to work on quality,” he said.

That means better defining the role of the NCO by setting standards and creating job descriptions as well as educating the officers who will be working with NCOs, he said. It also means putting the army’s 500 sergeants major through its sergeants major academy and sending junior enlisted to Warrior Leadership courses, all run within the country and increasingly taught by Afghan instructors.

The country’s dismal education level is the biggest barrier to such efforts, Safi told attendees to the Zagreb conference. The literacy rate in Afghanistan is low, and many soldiers lack even an elementary-school education.

All now receive literacy classes, and, while a high school diploma is preferred for leadership positions, more efforts are being made to bring the bulk of soldiers to a basic level of education, he said.

Other priorities include fighting nepotism and questionable promotions through the establishment of a central promotion board, Safi said. That effort is still a work in progress, he said, and one the Ministry of Defense will have to approve.

“If you cannot put the right person in the right position, we will not have a professional Afghanistan National Army,” Safi said.

U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas R. Capel, NATO’s top enlisted soldier in Afghanistan, said the Afghan force has made strides in recruitment and training over the past decade. It now must look to education and equipment, he said. One of Safi’s challenges is ensuring soldiers have basic supplies, from uniforms and boots to weaponry.

Capel, who has known Safi for 10 years, told the conference that the Afghan’s challenge is a significant one.

“Some people characterize it as building an airplane while it’s in flight,” he said. “They are building an army while they’re fighting a war.”

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