Kabul, Afghanistan - The young men arrive in traditional Afghan shalwar khamiz dress, walking past the tents that will be their homes and classrooms for the next year.
Already more than 200 of their fellow cadets are sitting on the makeshift parade ground, their heads newly shorn, wearing fresh uniforms.
This is the first-ever class of the Afghan National Army Officer Academy, a new school created to build Afghanistan's future military leaders. The transformation doesn't take long and in about 15 minutes, the new arrivals are sitting with the men they will study with for the next year.
The competition to get in was fierce. Ten thousand Afghan men applied - there will be women in future classes - for 270 slots. A thousand made the first cut and went through two days of physical and academic testing before being chosen.
"It was an incredibly complex selection process, something Afghanistan's never seen before," said British Brigadier General Maurice Sheen, the chief mentor of the academy.
"It was without favour, it was extremely fair. They were put through quite a grueling selection course over two days where their anonymity was key to it. So in the end, they were selected purely on merit and not who their fathers or who their relatives might be."
At first it will be hard for us, the training the lessons ... We will accept sacrifice so that we can rescue the children of this country from the darkness.
In Afghanistan, where complex family, tribal and ethnic relationships infiltrate most power structures, anonymous appointments based solely on ability are an exception rather than the rule.
'Lots of problems'
Cadet Haji Mohammed said getting accepted here is his dream. Like other cadets, he already has military experience. He served in the Afghan special forces for four-and-half years. "My wish always was to come here and to be trained as a young officer," he said.
Mohammed hopes to be an infantry officer and expects the course to be challenging. "Every course that's the first course will have some problems," Mohammed said. "But we've faced lots of problems before. When I first joined the army, we didn't have the facilities we have now. We will become more advanced so that we can best serve our country."
The Afghan army has grown quickly in the past few years, to about 185,000 today. The fledgling force faces daunting challenges: many of the soldiers are illiterate, the attrition rate from casualties, desertions and resignations is high, and ethnic loyalties sometimes come before national ones. The army's future officers will have a demanding job.
Cadet Mohammed Nasir's father served for 11 years in the intelligence service, and two of his brothers serve in the police. He has no military experience and is hoping to join the religious section of the army.
"We are living under the flag of Islam. There are some in our army who come from the countryside and they don't know about our religion," he said. "The framework of having an army came from our Prophet. Our Prophet had an army. Everyone in the army has to serve based on their culture and religion."
Nasir expects a steep learning curve at the beginning of the 42-week course.
"At first it will be hard for us, the training the lessons. But we will try our best, we will tighten our belts to serve our country," he said. "We will accept sacrifice so that we can rescue the children of this country from the darkness."
Alongside Afghan instructors are 120 mentors from five NATO nations: the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Australia and New Zealand.
| Our complete Afghanistan coverage
"It's going to be quite a long-term commitment," said Sheen. "It's enduring commitment certainly for the United Kingdom but for the partner nations as well. We intend to be here until 2023, or until the Afghan government decides that that is enough."
The chief of the academy's command office, Afghan Lieutenant Colonel Shamamud Zurmati, said international support is welcome and necessary.
"All Afghan security forces, not just the army but intelligence and other security forces, all need the foreign expertise and support, because our economy doesn't allow us to build the army without international support."
Afghanistan's government gets roughly 80 percent of its budget from the international community, which has pledged long-term support.
NATO's combat mission officially concludes at the end of 2014. It plans to continue a reduced presence in Afghanistan under a continuing mission labeled Resolute Support, which would mainly train and advise the Afghan forces.
Deal in jeopardy?
The NATO mission is contingent on a security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan. The two countries have been negotiating for nearly a year. US officials say they would like to see it completed as soon as possible, so military officials can make plans for withdrawing troops and equipment and preparing for a follow-on force.
An Afghan national assembly, or Loya Jirga, will debate the agreement in late November. If Afghan representatives reject the proposal, the future NATO mission would be in jeopardy.
|1,500 officers will graduate each year [AP]
In June, Afghan forces took the lead for security responsibilities across Afghanistan with NATO troops assisting in areas the Afghans still need to develop, such as logistics, medical evacuations and intelligence. As more troops leave, the Afghans are working to build the capacity to operate on their own, but in some areas it could take years.
At the officer academy, the first few classes will study and live in tents. Buildings that will hold classrooms and dormitories are still under construction, and Afghan and NATO officers wanted the academy's first course to begin so it can complete training before the end of next year. Ultimately 1,350 men and 150 women are expected to graduate annually.
The first 270 men will blaze a trail for the officers that come after them, and Sheen said it will be a difficult year for the would-be officers.
"They can expect an extremely robust course, it's going to be physically demanding for them, it's going to be intensive in terms of the training, but they're well up for it. They've been selected well and they'll do extremely well I'm sure."