The dire calls from Afghanistan keep buzzing retired major-general Dean Milner’s phone. Mostly, they come from an Afghan military official who’s in hiding as the Taliban sweep across the country. He’s looking for help and a comforting word from the Canadian soldier who mentored him on Afghanistan’s battlefields a decade ago.
“I patrolled with him, sweated with him, killed Taliban with him,” said Mr. Milner. “The Taliban will have his head if we can’t get him out.”
The conversations speak to a friendship forged in battle and, more broadly, to a bond between two militaries that emerged from Canada’s emphasis on training and mentoring Afghan soldiers during the final seven years of deployment in the country.
In recent weeks, those Canadian trainers have looked on in sadness and disappointment as their former charges have capitulated in the face of American abandonment, weak government support and an unrelenting Taliban.
“When the Americans decided to leave, they worried about their ability to keep going and they gave in, they gave up,” said Mr. Milner. “That really surprised me. I was really disappointed by that.”
From 2007 until 2014, the Canadian mission focused increasingly on training the Afghan National Army (ANA). Starting with a 64-troop training squad, referred to affectionately as an “omelette” and officially as an Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team (OMLT), Canadian soldiers began working alongside Afghan soldiers in every aspect of combat.
“The intent as we understood it was to help build the Afghan forces so they could provide their own security and choose their own destiny,” said retired major Peter Sullivan, deputy commander of the OMLT in 2007. “I think that was the right thing for Canada to do. … It’s a shame how things have turned out.”
Retired colonel Greg Burt likens the OMLT role to “a hockey coach who tries to stay on the bench but sometimes has to get on the ice.”
Mr. Burt commanded the OMLT in Kandahar for seven months in 2009 and says there were only three or four days when the 200 soldiers under his supervision didn’t take gunfire.
At the time, illiteracy among the ANA was estimated at 90 per cent, making for some rudimentary lessons. Trainers had to teach gunners basic math, for instance.
For Canada and other NATO allies, training a viable army became an exit strategy. But the timeline was often unrealistic. In 2009, U.S. commanders wanted to expand the ANA from 92,000 to 240,000 within a year.
“These soldiers were training one day and going live the next,” said Mr. Burt. “There were very few training exercises we could do because they were live so quickly.”
What’s more, said Mr. Burt, modern armies spend generations developing a solid officer class. At times, the ANA had mere months.
In 2011, Canada’s military efforts moved from combat operations in Kandahar to training in Kabul, working with NATO to build up the Afghan army at an institutional level by establishing schools equivalent to military college. Canada had a greater concentration of trainers in Afghanistan than any other country, said Mr. Milner, and the decision to leave in 2014 left a huge hole.
“It takes a long time to build those types of institutions and we got them to maybe 50 or 60 per cent,” said Mr. Milner, who commanded the NATO training mission in Kabul from May, 2013, to March, 2014. “When we left, we were hoping Canada’s role would be filled by other countries, and it wasn’t.”
With every passing year, that diminished recruitment and training capability made for a military that was withering by attrition.
Still, the ANA was able to fend off the Taliban for years with ever-shrinking American support. “NATO left in 2014, and for seven years the ANA fought, and fought hard,” said Stephen Saideman, professor of international affairs at Carleton University. “They fought tenaciously despite not being paid or supplied on time.”
For the ANA, the sudden removal of that minimal American support – along with reports of missed wages, chronic equipment shortages and poor food – led to a loss of confidence in the mission and in the government they served, say former Canadian troops who remain in touch with their former Afghan pupils.
Add to that a lack of adequate institutions to recruit, train and field more troops – the very institutions Canada and NATO once spearheaded – and the ANA’s eventual demise seemed assured.
“This has been a huge letdown for all Canadian soldiers,” said Mr. Milner. “We sacrificed 158 Canadians and watching the situations deteriorate there has been awful.”
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