Magazine article The Spectator

Sandhurst in the Sand

Magazine article The Spectator

Sandhurst in the Sand

Article excerpt


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. …

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