In 1802, the United States established a military academy at West Point, N.Y. Its mission was to ensure that the fledgling nation would have an educated officer corps and a steady source of skilled engineers to design, build, maintain, and defend the nation’s infrastructure. Two centuries later, Afghanistan is trying the same formula with its new military academy in Kabul. The academy will graduate its first class of engineers this month.
The government hopes graduates will help rebuild roads, bridges, and an electricity grid ravaged by decades of war and neglect. Just as important is ”creating a professional army officer corps that supports Afghanistan’s newly drafted constitution and is not fractured by separate allegiances to local warlords,” says U.S. Army colonel and IEEE senior member Barry Shoop, one of dozens of West Point faculty members who helped plan and build the school and continue to advise its Afghan faculty and staff.
Modeled on West Point, the National Military Academy of Afghanistan is often referred to as ”East Point.” The 109 young men who were sworn in as cadets in 2005 underwent what Shoop calls a rigorous Western-style university curriculum. All will graduate with bachelor of science degrees in one of seven majors, which include civil, mechanical, systems, and information systems engineering. The four-year course of study combines engineering instruction with the study of calculus, statistics, chemistry, and physics. Students also take courses in regional, world, and military history as well as three years of foreign language instruction. Graduates of the academy are all expected to speak, read, and write in both Dari and Pashto, two of the primary dialects spoken by most Afghanis, as well as English or Turkish.
The graduates, who will be commissioned as second lieutenants in Afghanistan’s national army, are obligated to serve 10 years on active duty in exchange for the tuition-free undergraduate education and free books, supplies, housing, and food they receive while attending the academy. This service commitment has not hampered enrollment, says Shoop, who is the chairman of West Point’s electrical engineering department. Applications increased by 50 percent to 1789 in 2007.
When asked what East Point will do for Afghanistan, Shoop mentioned the refurbishment of the campus, which is on the site of a former Soviet air academy. ”When we identified the site,” he says, ”we found buildings that were structurally sound but had no power and no running water, on grounds littered with land mines.” But with the expertise of engineers from West Point and an assist from some U.S. Navy engineers, Afghan army personnel restored the basic infrastructure, setting the stage for the addition of features that are critical to running a modern university, such as a computer lab with Internet access. ”The changes there are emblematic of what can occur across the country when the academy’s graduates go back to their home regions and share the benefit of their education,” Shoop says.