By Kathleen T. Rhem
Nov. 23, 2006 – At 14, Roshan Safi was leading men in combat, running weapons behind Soviet lines to Afghan resistance forces. Today, at 34, he is the senior enlisted member in the Afghan National Army. Roshan was appointed the first sergeant major of the Afghan army in June. Since then he has taken on -- and solved -- issues that have stymied general officers in this force's four years of existence and is virtually single-handedly raising the prestige of noncommissioned officers among military leaders who grew up under a Soviet style of military in which only officers have responsibility or authority.
"I am praying to my God to do something to make things better (by serving) in this position," Roshan said.
He spent the day yesterday with U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey, senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "You are making history," Gainey told Roshan. "When you are an old man rocking in your rocking chair and your grandbabies come to you and say, 'Grandpa, what did you do?' You can say, 'I made history.'"
Gainey was appointed in October 2005 as the first person in his position as the senior enlisted member of the U.S. Defense Department. He told Roshan he understands the challenges, frustrations and rewards of convincing people entrenched in one system that change is necessary. He called Roshan "a pathfinder."
"It's very, very important to make this position work," Gainey said.
U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel R. Wood, senior enlisted leader for Combined Forces Command Afghanistan, also sung Roshan's praises. "He is fixing issues that the corps commander hasn't been able to fix," Wood said. "He takes these issues on because they're important."
Establishing the position of sergeant major of the Afghan National Army was an uphill battle waged by senior U.S. NCOs. Afghan leaders pooh-poohed the concept of a single enlisted leader for the force. U.S. leaders understood the need but felt the Afghan generals weren't ready for such a radical change.
Wood and Army Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Gills, senior enlisted advisor for Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, convinced them otherwise.
Still, at first, Gills said, he believes Afghan leaders relented and appointed Roshan "to please the Americans." They had no intention of taking the position seriously, he said.
But Roshan proved to be a force to be reckoned with. In just three to four months on the job, he has become a valued member of the Afghan army's leadership team and a trusted advisor to Gen. Bismullah Khan, the Afghan National Army's chief of staff, Gills said.
For the first two months in his position, Roshan literally conducted business from a bench in front of the Ministry of Defense. MoD officials didn't think he was important enough to rate an office; then they gave him a broom-closet of an office in a remote location. But work was completed yesterday on an impressive marble-floored office commensurate with his position, Wood said. Roshan will move in next week.
Gainey urged Roshan to continue his efforts and be proud of every step forward, no matter how small. You know how you eat an elephant?" he joked to Roshan. "One small bite at a time."
Roshan said he keeps up the good fight to build a capable and respected NCO corps because he believes he's building the future of his country. Conversing fluently in English, he calls himself and his fellow Afghan command sergeants major "the forefathers" of his country's NCO corps.
Still, many leaders here don't share that vision of the future. Gainey told Roshan he fears for the Afghan sergeant major's safety. "How many people don't like what you're doing?" Gainey asked.
The answer: plenty. "There will be a big party when I die," Roshan said, only half joking.
But he said he is confident the NCO leaders growing with the Afghan National Army today will be capable replacements for him in the future. "I have confidence in my other command sergeant majors," he said.
The Afghan National Army has changed dramatically since Roshan volunteered four years ago. "When I first joined the army, soldiers had to bring their own weapons," he said.
Now, U.S. and Afghan officials are building state-of-the-art distribution systems to get weapons and other mission-essential supplies out to the army's five corps.
Roshan also has made tremendous personal strides. When the Afghan National Army was formed, Roshan quickly earned a reputation as a fierce warrior. U.S. Special Forces soldiers nicknamed him "the Tornado" because he so successfully led Afghan soldiers in the first four major campaigns the new Afghan National Army fought in, Gills said.
He attended the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy, in Fort Bliss, Texas, and graduated as the best of 41 international students just a month before being appointed to his current position.
"Talk about a total-package leader," Gills said. "He's been fighting his whole life, now he's working strategic issues with four-star generals."
In addition, Roshan is a Muslim imam. Wood said that is a valuable asset in that Roshan can help lead soldiers through confusion and ambiguities about their faith brought about by teachings of religious extremists in Afghanistan.
Roshan returned Nov. 16 from a two-week trip to the United States, accompanied by Gills. During the trip, he spoke to 650 students in the current Sergeants Major Academy class. "He spoke for an hour on the status of the (Afghan) army, police and national security forces and differences between Iraq and Afghanistan," Gills said. "He brought the house down. They gave him a three- to four-minute standing ovation."
Roshan also visited Afghan soldiers training with 82nd Airborne Division troopers at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, La., and learned about U.S. Army basic combat training at Fort Jackson, S.C.
At Fort Bragg, N.C., Roshan briefed leaders of the 82nd Airborne Division, which is scheduled to deploy here in February, on what they can expect from Afghan National Army NCOs, Gills said.
In Washington, D.C., Roshan met with his U.S. Army counterpart, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston, as well as Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker and Vice Chief Gen. Richard A. Cody. He also learned about the U.S. Army Noncommissioned Officer Education System and drill sergeant programs, as well as how the Army handles senior enlisted promotions and assignments at the service's Human Resources Command in Alexandria, Va.
"These are all things he's working to develop," Gills said of Roshan. "Everywhere we went I showed him the duties and responsibilities of NCOs."
Roshan is decorating his new office with photos and mementos of his visits with senior U.S. Army leaders. He also is placing a portrait and statue of Abraham Lincoln in his new office. Roshan said he admires how the U.S. president led the United States through a violent time of regional and racial strife. Many of Afghanistan's problems stem from racial and tribal differences. "We have kind of the same situation, differences between cultures," Roshan said. "He did so much for America and people working together. Today we are working to hold our country and people together."
Gills has been tasked to mentor Roshan in his new position, and the two spend 12 to 15 hours together every day. "We'll be friends for life," Gills said.
He said he credits much of Roshan's success to his charisma and natural leadership abilities. "When he stands in front of a group of people, you can feel the respect he commands," Gills said.
In a country where 64 percent of the population is illiterate and many recruits can't write their own name when they join the army, Roshan's highest priority is education for the forces. "Soldiers must be educated," he said, and expressed his admiration of U.S. military education programs.
He also has helped write a Soldiers' Creed and NCO Creed for the Afghan army and is instituting professional development counseling. Everywhere Roshan runs into Afghan soldiers, he urges them to take pride in their mission and their appearance.
During a visit yesterday to the Afghan National Army Logistics Command, Gainey was speaking to some U.S. servicemembers, and Roshan didn't miss a beat. He gathered up his own group of Afghan soldiers and used the opportunity to do some on-the-spot professional counseling.
"He never misses an opportunity to counsel and provide guidance," Gills said. "He'll walk away from here with a pocket full of issues."
Only time will tell of Roshan's successes in building a respected, capable NCO corps in the Afghan National Army. "He's writing the story as we go along," Wood said. "And he doesn't know how it will end yet."
But Roshan rests easily, confident he is making a difference. "I am very proud, and my family is very proud of me," he said. "I am doing my best.
"One day we will be 'G to G,'" he said, using a common U.S. Army expression. "Good to go."
Article sponsored by Criminal Justice online and Police Officer turned law enforcement writer.