Building the Afghan Army: SSR 2002-03

I recently worked with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in DC and we discussed the early days after the invasion of Afghanistan.  Specifically the year after the Taliban regime was overthrown by the U.S. Led coalition and we began the Security Sector Reform (SSR) process that was decided at Bonn.  Coalition members from across the globe cooperated to help the Afghans create an Army, Police, Courts, and a Counter-narcotics effort while demobilizing the Afghan militias that had helped the U.S. topple the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

1 18JAN03 Asifi 02

(Brig Asifi, Commandant of KMTC)

1 13JAN03 7BANA pre KMTC 03

(Afghan Leader welcomes new recruits to the Kabul Military Training Center)

This is a brief overview of that first year 18 months of the international effort, of which I spent a year focused on from Sept 2002-September 2003.  I was the OMC-A Chief and U.S. SSR Coordinator,  Major General Eikenberry’s Aide De Camp.

2003 09Sep 16 MG E Award Ceremony 2

This post will be photo-heavy in an effort to share a mental picture of where the coalition started from as they built a new security sector with the Afghans.

Phase 1: Picking up the pieces and starting anew– Spring 2002-Fall 2002

The first thing that needed to be done was rebuild some destroyed infrastructure and use it as a central location in Kabul to start basic infantry training for the new Afghan recruits coming in from all over the country.  We luckily didn’t destroy the entire compound during the invasion, but the bombs made quite a dent.

1 kmtc3

This effort was run on a daily basis by the first Chief of the Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan (OMC-A).  The OMC-A was headquartered at the newly opened U.S. Embassy.  His skeleton crew of around 8 officers and NCOs was augmented by a small team of coalition military members housed in Kabul at what would later be called Camp Eggers.  This additional brain-trust was called the Design Team and they would collaborate with whatever Afghan counterparts they could locate to create the model for the new Afghan National Army.  This design team is oft forgotten but they were a crucial element in the rebuilding of the Afghan military.

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The close up work of training the Afghan military was conducted by Special Forces Soldiers that were stationed alongside the tiny Cadre of Afghan Officers under the leadership of Brig. Asifi at the Kabul Military Training Center or KMTC.

2003 03MAR 4 KMTC

These early efforts would produce about 4 Infantry Battalions that were immediately deployed alongside Special Forces teams across the country to hunt down the remnants of the Taliban and AQ.  Shoulder to Shoulder, a later slogan for training and fighting beside Afghan forces, began on day 1 of the effort.  Every available Afghan Army leader that survived the civil-war and Taliban regime was put to work and their memories of the previous Army were used to produce the New Army with as much Afghan culture as possible.  But this was a new mission for the Army, and there were few remaining professional Soldiers in the Afghan Army.

At the end of this phase the Secretary of Defense hand-selected and deployed Major General Karl Eikenberry with a two-fold mission to build and lead an International Security Sector Reform effort alongside the UN (Ambassador Brahimi) and the Transitional Afghan Government (President Karzai) and also to take the lead as OMC-A Chief to build an Afghan Army Corps (US division sized element) and build the Ministry of Defense and General Staff.

Before he arrived the ANA basic combat training graduations had begun and a handful of battalions had marched off the training and parade field and onto the battlefield.

2003 01JAN 2BANA at AK Range 08

2002 08AUG 1st BANG Grad

(The First Afghan National Army Battalion is honored as it readies to depart KMTC.)

Phase 2: Formalized SSR November 2002-September 2003

Major General Eikenberry would immediately start requesting additional resources to meet his objectives.  With no formal US or UN SSR policy or doctrine in place the OMC-A and SSR Team began to embark on a mission to build an airplane in flight.  (this phase is detailed in my short book that was published in 2009)

2003 04APR 2 Bamian 5

Assessing the mission:

Trips around Kabul and the Eastern part of Afghanistan revealed quickly how little the Afghans had in physical and human resources.

1 AK96

This visit to the Afghan Army barracks on the Presidential compound and especially its kitchen would tell us a lot about how far we had to go.

After the visit we wondered how the Soldiers were still alive.

This kid hopefully wasn’t eating there.

1 AK86

Almost daily visits to the KMTC from the U.S. Embassy down a dangerous IED road were also revealing.  Given the poor conditions the Soldiers and their Special Forces trainers were doing the impossible.

2002 11NOV 18 Kabul Milt Acad Kitchen

2002 11NOV 19 RPG Training KMTC

2002 11NOV 18 Cadet studying at Kabul Milt Acad.jpg

(cadet studying on the lawn of the military high school)

Besides visiting training sites the OMC-A Chief spent a large chunk of his weekly time working with the logistics side of the Afghan military to assess the state of equipment and armaments.

2002 11NOV 12 Firearm repair depot Kabul tool display

Initial findings were predicative of the state of logistics backing the new Army.

Building the team to build the team

The OMC-A team was very small compared to other efforts of this magnitude.  This picture of the early tribe also contains  the 6 man team of MPs we borrowed from a local MP National Guard unit to protect the General as he traveled around the country.  To say the early OMC-A team was punching well above its weight is an understatement.  Oddly enough the unit award given to the OMC-A by the US government had a start date of October 2003 after the entire initial team had rotated home and a larger contingent had been built.

2002 12DEC 13 Early OMC-A The Tribe

The OMC-A team went to work to enlarge itself and build close relationships with the Afghan government, United Nations, Embassy teams from other nations, NATO, and numerous other actors that we needed to collaborate with to succeed.

Here one of the early British members of the OMC is awarded before his departure.

2002 11NOV 12 Farewell LtCol Hughes MG E  LTC Chris Allen

We also had to get the Afghans to learn to trust us as we were not the same Soldiers they fought alongside during the invasion.  Trust building included sharing meals and attending training events.

2002 12DEC 30 Baryalai feast

It also included getting one of our own players into a Buzkashi match on a horse borrowed from the Vice President during the national matches.  We weren’t sure if that would prove we were brave or crazy but it did improve our bond.


2003 02FEB 14 Buzkashi 20a

While part of the Team in Kabul was working on the senior leader relationships our trainers on the ground everyday were building the skills of the Afghan Infantry on the ranges and across newly de-mined maneuver areas.  What these Green Berets did on a daily basis was nothing short of impossible.

2002 Nov -Feb 088

2002 Nov -Feb 091

The OMC-A Chief and his team kept moving forward with training Afghan Soldiers but also the ministry of defense civilians and general staff.

Here we were taking their senior leadership to American to study the Infantry school, Fort Bragg training, CENTCOM Hqs operations, USMA West Point procedures, and to meet with American DOD senior leaders.

Upon return from the US the leaders attended another Infantry Battalion graduation and soon the formation of the first Infantry Brigade.

2003 03MAR 4 4Kandak grad 2

2003 03MAR 15 ANA BDE Activation 1 Pres Karzai & LTG McNiell

The OMC-A Chief had two hats though, so besides building the Army we were supporting the training and employment of a Secret Service protective team to guard the Afghan President as we slowly pulled our Special Operations Forces off his detail.  This was one of the many smaller topics we oversaw in his position as US Security Coordinator for the International SSR effort.

Another task that we fulfilled was following the Soldiers from the ranges of Kabul to the FOBs (forward operating bases) out in the provinces to watch them operate beside our coalition forces.  Just building barracks and supplying weapons training wouldn’t make the Army competent in the long run. They needed to train alongside our forces in actual combat.

This particular trip was to Bamian where a joint Afghan and Special Forces team was conducting patrols and also trading healthcare for arms and ammunition so it couldn’t be used by the enemy and if salvageable could be brought into the Afghan Armory.

2003 01JAN 31 Madr Valley ANA FB Romero

2003 01JAN 31 Madr Valley ANA Co Cdr and A Det Cdr

Back in Kabul the OMC-A team was growing and also becoming a key part of the U.S. Embassy team.  We spent a lot of time taking members of the Embassy Mission out into the field so they could see the security and humanitarian situation up close.

2003 04APR 22 MAJ S Farewell.jpg

Our efforts to increase buy in by the Afghan leaders into the new military and to take ownership of security was aided by a spring 2003 MOD and Militia Commanders Security Conference that brought in Afghan leaders from across the country to talk about the future of the country and the security forces.

2003 04APR 19 MoD Conference 02

The conference included bringing various Afghan leaders in and outside of the government to see the Afghan Army training in Kabul.

In the end we made some headway.  Not a game changer, but something to build upon.

These types of efforts led to more trips around the country where we convinced militia groups to send their men into the security forces and turn in heavy equipment that could be used by the Afghan Army.  It was one way to shift the monopoly of violent force control to the government from the militias.

2003 04APR 15 tanks arrive for ANA

The tanks and armored personnel carriers found their way to a depot where our NATO partners with a background using Soviet equipment were able to teach the Afghans how to ready them for a fight.

2003 05MAY 24 Tank Farm 05

Trips outside Kabul included Kandahar, Herat, Mazar, Jalalabad, Khost, Sherbegan, and many other locations.  Each time we met with leaders to talk about the new Army and the new government.  As the new government gained in confidence more and more Afghans were happy to answer our invitations to go out on the visits.

2003 07JUL 18 Sherbegan 2

2003 06JUN 13 Khost 02

And as always every week in Kabul included more training events, meetings with the Security Sector Reform team, visits from US senior leaders, and hosting different Afghan leaders that were interested in seeing the new Army.  Our British partners had come a long way towards building a competent Afghan Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO-Sergeant) course and the weather kept up the realism of training.

2003 09Sep 16 Last Security Sector Reform Mtg Brit Emb2003 06JUN 5 NCO Grad

2003 05MAY 2 SECDEF at Lowgar

We continued our efforts in team building with senior Afghan leaders inside the Ministry of Defense which paved the way for future Security Sector Conferences and solving difficult small problems.

2003 05MAY 30 COL D and COL McMahon Farewell Feast 9j

Gaining the trust of the Afghans allowed me to lead a team of military members in civilian clothes into the Bala Hissar fortress overlooking Kabul on a “tourist” mission one Sunday so we could get a closer look at the Afghan forces that had not moved out of the area yet so we could assess their size and capability.  Eventually this area would come under the new Army’s control.  I will admit it was a very interesting and historical place to visit too.

2002 01Feb Picture 097

2003 04APR 4 Bela Hissar high point

The Security Sector Reform conference that followed the Ministry of Defense conference really got the Afghan leaders from across the country to talk about their difference and come up with some paths towards unity.  Still a long way to go after dozens of years of war but getting these one-time enemies and allies in a room was a step.

2003 07JUL 30 SSR Symposium 13

2003 07JUL 30 SSR Symposium 05

Training would continue for the Afghan Soldiers.  Barracks were built, advanced staff officer training was introduced, recruiting stations were opened with Afghan leaders attending the events and learning their role in the ownership of their security forces.

In less than a years time Major General Eikenberry led the OMC-A team (which was now quite large) to build the first New Afghan National Army Corps.  I was an important milestone for the Afghan government and the Afghan people.  America had its Valley Forge and the Afghans now had their first professional Army after years of civil war.

2003 08AUG 30 a CC Activation 01

2003 08AUG 30 i MG E Karzai Afghan Highest Medal

New leaders were brought on board in Afghanistan and the outgoing team that was the first to pull one-year tours in Afghanistan was finally going home with its objectives seized.  We showed the incoming commander around Kabul and explained the progress of the mission and the challenges that lay ahead.


The goodbyes took quite a while to attend.  We had built a large network and made some lifelong friends.  Many of the Afghan colleagues I worked beside would die before my next tour in Afghanistan but I was honored to work beside them.  For all the flaws of mankind you have to work with the people on your team to make the world better.

2003 09SEP 18 President Karzai MGE and I

I was honored to be a small part of the OMC-A and SSR teams during my first tour in Afghanistan.


OMC-A Group Colour

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