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Afghan soldiers from the 203rd Corps march at Camp Thunder in preparation for a parade in Kabul. American military trainers are working with Afghan soldiers to develop the growing Afghan National Army.
Afghan soldiers from the 203rd Corps march at Camp Thunder in preparation for a parade in Kabul. American military trainers are working with Afghan soldiers to develop the growing Afghan National Army. (Anita Powell / S&S)
Afghan soldiers from the 203rd Corps march at Camp Thunder in preparation for a parade in Kabul. American military trainers are working with Afghan soldiers to develop the growing Afghan National Army.
Afghan soldiers from the 203rd Corps march at Camp Thunder in preparation for a parade in Kabul. American military trainers are working with Afghan soldiers to develop the growing Afghan National Army. (Anita Powell / S&S)
Command Sgts. Maj. Kevin White, 43, left, and Fazil Ahmad, 25, are working to improve the Afghan army’s noncommissioned officer corps.
Command Sgts. Maj. Kevin White, 43, left, and Fazil Ahmad, 25, are working to improve the Afghan army’s noncommissioned officer corps. (Anita Powell / S&S)

AFGHAN NATIONAL ARMY CAMP THUNDER, Afghanistan — Command Sgt. Maj. Fazil Ahmad embodies the spirit of the growing Afghan National Army: young, energetic, hopeful yet uncertain about the future.

At 25, the two-year soldier — the top noncommissioned officer for the 203rd Corps, a two-brigade unit based in the snowy, rugged peaks of Gardez — is carrying the torch for the nascent NCO corps while helping build the Afghan National Army.

He’s helped in that duty by a company-sized detachment of American military trainers who work side-by-side with Afghan soldiers. Afghan-led patrols canvass the windy Khowst-Gardez mountain pass on a daily basis. In recent months, those operations have yielded weapons caches and suspected insurgents.

But the mission, all agree, is far from complete.

“Without you,” 203rd Corps commander Maj. Gen. Abdul Khaliq told U.S. Army Col. John Nicholson, the newly arrived commander of 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division of Fort Drum, N.Y., “we cannot exist alone. We don’t have that capability. ... We are still in the course of building our army. Still it doesn’t have all the capabilities we need to defend our national interests.”

The key, officials say, is more time.

“We need more support, more mentoring,” Ahmad said in English. “We are new.”

One of the big obstacles, Afghan leaders say, is to get the rank and file to support the concept of a professional NCO corps.

“I have more problems with officers,” Ahmad said. “Sometimes they make me want to [leave] the army. We have some colonels that cannot write their names, they’re still officers. ... Some places I go, they say, ‘This is not for (NCOs), this is for officers.’”

Ahmad said he also struggles to impose order and discipline in the new army, whose standards vary from American standards.

“We have soldiers who are smoking hashish,” he said. “I punish them. (The first) three or four times, I speak nicely to them. If I catch them a fifth time, I hit them with a stick.”

Ahmad’s mentor and counterpart, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin White, 43, a Vermont National Guardsman who has served in the Army for 26 years, said teaching soldiers and higher officers to respect and properly use NCOs has been a struggle.

White’s goal, he said, is to “just get the officer corps to understand the role of the (NCO) corps. It’s the old mind, the old Russian mind-set.”

Another problem, both sergeants major acknowledged, is the corruption that still pervades much of the Afghan military and government.

“Officers can get in the army if they have money or a connection in the ministry of defense,” White said.

Khaliq said he has encouraged all of his soldiers — officers and enlisted — to support the NCO program.

“I believe in the noncommissioned officer corps, to develop them and help them,” he said. “It’s a new thing for us. I just want to develop them, make all the officers respect them.”

American military officials are quick to point out that the Afghan and American militaries cannot be compared to each other, and say that the Afghan National Army has progressed significantly in recent years.

“I think to approach it from a western perspective doesn’t work,” Nicholson said. “We’re still building this army. I think it’s incredible, how far we’ve come. . . You’ve got great enthusiasm on both sides to work together and defeat this common enemy. That’s a winning combination right there.”

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