It began as a group of tents on the outskirts of Kabul, growing to a sprawling campus of grey, besser-block buildings.

But behind the Afghan National Army Officer Academy’s physical façade, Australian mentors were there since the academy’s first intake of cadets in 2013 until their mission ended in August. 

Snow covered the towering hills around the academy each winter, as Australian mentors worked through the seasons developing Afghan staff in administrative and instructional skills.

Countless cups of chai were shared as mentors built friendships with staff before helping develop the academy curriculum.

The British-led coalition mission intended to create a “Sandhurst in the Sand”, modelled on the UK’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

Most mentors attended lead-up courses at Sandhurst, including Lieutenant Colonel Lachlan Searle, mentor and final senior Australian representative at the academy.

He found many Afghan staff were respected in positions they’d held since the academy’s inception, crediting previous mentors’ work setting up systems and processes.

“The officer cadets were also highly motivated and incredibly resilient,” Lieutenant Colonel Searle said.

“Most knew within 12 months they would be leading Afghan soldiers on combat operations, often in remote provinces with limited support.” 

The first cadet intake of 270 all-male Afghans was drawn from a reported 10,000 applicants. In 2014, about 30 female cadets were admitted, a big step in Afghan culture.

During later years, they were integrated in most classes and field exercises, although female cadets wouldn’t sleep in the field and did separate PT.

There was an increase in the number of Pashtu females entering training in 2018, whereas the majority were previously from more liberal Hazara backgrounds. The 100th female also graduated that year.  

By late 2020, 300 females had been commissioned, about six per cent of overall graduates.

Lieutenant Colonel Searle also served as mentoring mission chief of staff, mentoring the academy’s chief of staff, Afghan Lieutenant Colonel Azizi.

“I found it worthwhile sharing a meal or just taking a few minutes to talk about family over a cup of tea,” Lieutenant Colonel Searle said.

“Once the personal relationship was solid, the working relationship would follow.” 

Lieutenant Colonel Searle said COVID-19 changed the way they worked. 

We have helped to create a strong and capable officer training institution that meets the demands of the Afghan National Army. The Afghans are proud of the legacy we helped them to build.

Face-to-face meetings were replaced with virtual mentoring via mobile phone, email and online get-togethers.

“Reduced proximity of the mentoring team necessitated the Afghan staff using their knowledge, skills and judgement to solve issues rather than refer to mentors,” he said. 

“This empowerment of leadership proved the academy was ready to further reduce its reliance on coalition support.”    

COVID-19 restrictions also restricted the Afghans holding a fitting send-off for Australians as their mission came to a close.

“They wanted to show their appreciation through the offer of their superb Afghan hospitality, but were unable to,” Lieutenant Colonel Searle said.

Academy graduates are now sought after in Afghan operational and special forces, according to Lieutenant Colonel Searle.

The 5000th cadet graduated in September and Camp Qargha, the compound housing coalition mentors and support staff on academy grounds, was closed.

Lieutenant Colonel Searle paid tribute to the 72 Australian Camp Qargha support staff, including communications and force protection personnel. 

“Advisers relied heavily on medical and logistic, operational planning and intelligence support, as well as the intimate support provided on task by ‘guardian angels’ and QRF [quick reaction force],” Lieutenant Colonel Searle said.

Australia still has about 150 personnel deployed with NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan. 

A limited number of British and other coalition mentors continue to work at the academy, but are based in Kabul’s city centre.

“The Afghans are incredibly resilient. They regularly fight in exceptionally difficult terrain, in extreme weather conditions, but they have a mindset of perseverance,” Lieutenant Colonel Searle said.

“We have helped to create a strong and capable officer training institution that meets the demands of the Afghan National Army. The Afghans are proud of the legacy we helped them to build.”