As Canadian combat troops complete their final withdrawal from Afghanistan this week, a fresh contingent of soldiers has joined the ambitious NATO training mission that is trying to build a self-sufficient Afghan army.
The Canadian trainers arrive at a moment when the need for more professional and proficient Afghan security forces has taken on a new urgency.
During the next 14 months, the United States plans to send home one-third of its 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. Other NATO countries have announced similar draw downs starting this summer.
At the same time, the Afghan army and police forces are under intense pressure to prove they are capable of operating independently, as security for four cities and three provinces across the country is transferred to their control this month.
Yet they face a determined insurgency, as was demonstrated last week when heavily armed suicide bombers attacked a Kabul hotel. The Afghan army and police responded, but without their own helicopters and largely untested commandos, they had to call in help from NATO to end the siege.
About half of the promised 950 Canadian trainers have arrived during the past month in Kabul, where they are so far acting mainly as advisers to Afghan army instructors.
They are part of a training mission that includes about 1,600 professional military trainers from dozens of countries and about 1,900 private military contractors.
The goal of the NATO training mission is to create a 300,000-strong military and paramilitary police force that can take over security in Afghanistan before NATO countries leave at the end of 2014.
It is a task that has few, if any, modern precedents.
“I don’t believe that since the Second World War, any nation has been faced with such a large challenge – and done it as well as Afghanistan,” said Major-General D. Michael Day, the former head of Canadian Special Forces who is now in charge of army training here for NATO.
Canada’s footprint in the mission is substantial. It has pledged to provide up to 950 people, the second-largest national contribution of full-time military officers after the United States, and its officers will concentrate on advising the Afghan officer corps and Afghan instructors.
Unlike other big players in the training mission, though, the Canadian government told NATO its trainers could not operate with Afghans in the field or in dangerous parts of the country. So some 350 of them will be support staff or will work in NATO headquarters offices in the capital.
The rest of the training contingent will mainly serve as mentors or advisers in heavily fortified training centres in Kabul. The exception will be two small groups of Canadian military and medical specialists who will be based next year at schools in the generally peaceful cities of Herat in the east near the Iranian border and Mazar-e Sharif in the north near the Uzbekistan border.
The NATO training program was a haphazard affair until late 2009, when it was consolidated and given an injection of American money to purchase equipment, build branch schools and officer-training centres, and pay the salaries of Afghan police and soldiers.
The emphasis last year was to churn out as many infantrymen as possible, and as fast as possible. This year’s goal, according to NATO commanders, is to concentrate on what they call quality rather than quantity by building a proficient corps of officers and non-commissioned officers.
The newly arrived Canadians, many of them veterans of the Afghanistan war, say they were eager to return even with the restrictions on where they will work.
“For me to sit back in Canada and just watch, didn’t feel right,” said Warrant Officer Dwayne Johnson, who served three tours before volunteering for a training slot. “For me, this is something new.”
He is one of about 100 Canadians serving as mentors at Camp Black Horse, an expanse of dreary flatland east of Kabul where Afghans officers are given two weeks of leadership training. Their company-sized units, made up of young soldiers who have finished basic training, then get seven weeks at the camp where they are drilled, equipped and hopefully moulded into fighting units.
“You would like to have more time,” said Colonel Daniel Griffith, the American commander of the Black Horse fielding centre. “But we’re in combat.”
Earlier this week, Canadian mentors watched as a whippet-thin Afghan lieutenant colonel went over the basics of mines with a group of young infantrymen who sat cross-legged on a wooden platform under the drooping yellow canvas of an open-sided tent.
He paced in front of them, shouting out instructions and testing them. “Who knows what a mine is?” he growled. A young soldier struggled to his feet and answered, correctly it seemed. The rest of the group clapped furiously.
“How many types of mines are there?” the instructor barked. Again, a young man shot up and shouted out an answer. Again, there was the staccato response of applause.
Once the group broke up, it would be the turn of the Canadian mentors to consult with the Afghan teacher on how best to get the message across.
“I advise them on teaching methods to keep the men engaged,” said Captain A. J. Kang, who served in Afghanistan three years ago as a mentor in Kandahar to Afghan units that patrolled with Canadian Forces.
His advice, repeated during every day, is elementary but has to be given carefully since the Afghan instructors generally outrank him. Keep the soldiers from nodding off by giving them breaks every 20 minutes, he tells them. Demonstrate a task after explaining it. Make them practise in front of the group. Ask questions and have the soldiers answer.
Afghan officers, Capt. Kang said, seem keen to learn and even eager to lead, traits he did not see before. “I’ve seen vast improvements from 2008 until now,” he said. “The difference is astronomical.”