“You know what it’s like,” says the Canadian, glancing up, watching as a group of 30 bored-looking Afghan recruits sit haphazardly on the gravel, chewing things or playing with their new caps.
“It’s…” the Canadian soldier trails off and, still looking at the Afghans, he holds up his hands and then sighs like his body is deflating.
The soldier is standing beside an improvised outdoor classroom in the centre of Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, right at the heart of NATO’s new, last best chance to get out of this war with anything approaching grace.
He’s talking about what it’s like to take this group of inscrutable Afghans—men once famously described as “professional chameleons” by United States General David Petraeus—from a state of civilian indolence to that of a soldier prepared to be deployed into combat pretty much right after basic training.
“It’s like herding cats,” he finally concludes.
There is a huge machine, years in the making, that hopes to produce an Afghan security force that can, largely on its own, take responsibility for the country in 2014. This machine has many moving parts, which can be broken down into some key phases: recruitment, literacy training, individual basic training, company size, pre-deployment training and, of course, on-the-job training—known as combat.
Canada’s role in this machine—the NATO Training Mission, Afghanistan—is known as Operation Attention and it consists of roughly 950 Canadian Forces personnel based mostly in and around Kabul, but also in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and Herat in the west.
There are several crucial parts in the machine. The Consolidated Fielding Centre just off the Jalalabad Road in eastern Kabul is where the NATO training effort in Afghanistan all comes together. It’s where new Afghan army companies are put through their paces before being sent out the door. In late 2011, it was a group of approximately 100 Canadian soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry that were more or less in charge of overseeing the Fielding Centre. Alongside coalition partners from the U.S., Jordan, Great Britain and many other countries, the PPCLI’s role was limited to advising and mentoring the Afghan team that was ostensibly in charge of the Fielding Centre. It was a train-the-trainer approach.
The Consolidated Fielding Centre
The centre’s staff has about two months to create military units ready to deploy into the fight. In addition to infantry companies, they also train engineers, artillery, route clearance, and service and support units.
Their actual job, as they see it, is not really to create units that can secure a population or win a war, but simply to create units that can survive the drive to wherever they happen to be deploying.
Captain Al Younghusband is a veteran of Kandahar and one of the Canadian officers working at the centre. “We’re building units that can defend themselves while they deploy. Once they get [to their destination] they get further training.”
Younghusband says the priority is to train the units in defensive measures—against IED strikes, ambushes, etc.—teach them the basic tactics and communications skills necessary to survive. “And that’s just to get them down to their corps,” he adds.
There appears to be a couple of issues plaguing the centre and, by extension, the Afghan security forces. Anyone who has spent time with the Afghan army or police will immediately recognize the issues. First, leadership is inconsistent. Second, discipline is sporadic and hard to enforce.
Younghusband is seeing these issues up close and firsthand. He is, you could say, living with these issues every day.
The most recent infantry battalion that passed through the centre “was considered a pass” but not by much, he adds. The problem was leadership. “In a lot of cases their company commanders are chosen by the minister of defence and they all come from different backgrounds. The guy who was strongest here was actually mentored by us down in Kandahar in 2008, out of 205 Corps, and he was leaps and bounds above the others in terms of tactical know-how and just keeping his head in the game. Whereas a lot of these guys, either through people they know or what-not, get allocated these positions. So, in some cases you get a good one and in some cases you happen to get a guy who happened to slide in and struggles his way through.”
And it’s not just the company commanders that have issues. “The majority of the platoon commanders come right out of the national training academy here, so they have very little background in terms of what’s really going on out there,” says Younghusband. “The NCOs are in the same boat…the NCO corps is, I wouldn’t say it’s underdeveloped, I would says it’s fragile. They don’t have that tactical background. It’s a challenge to say the least, trying to get their NCOs developed. The units are just brand new. There’s no background really to draw from.”
While it’s a relatively straightforward thing for Canadians to identify problems such as patronage appointments and the ensuing leadership deficit, actually doing something about it is not easy, nor does it fit with the stand-back, ‘arms-length’ policy being taken to help ensure Afghans are truly capable of independence by 2014.
The second problem, of discipline, tends to be interconnected with the first problem.
“Some of these guys get the impression that because they’re officers they don’t have to attend the training,” says Younghusband. “So you’ll see them all of a sudden appear just prior to validation. And their performance at validation is quite reflective of how much training they’ve taken part in. They try to justify that by saying, ‘I’ve got work to do, I’ve got work to do, I’ve got work to do,’ but in essence I think I know what they’re up to and they’re not up to very much.”
While efforts are currently underway to bring some reforms to Afghan military discipline, it’s still a problem that Younghusband simply doesn’t have the tools to address at his level, and so, as he says, it’s “a problem that we’re facing right now. I don’t think there’s any real solution to the discipline piece yet. Guys come and go, depending on whether they go AWL for [holidays] or something like that, we’re still trying to figure out how they discipline their own soldiers. Obviously we’re trying to minimize the cultural piece where they’ll just walk up and smack one of their guys. We just don’t do that. But in terms of actually holding them accountable—jail time, fines, administrative action—I think they can deduct their pay and that’s about it.
“Even in here, I’m not sure what it is, but we have to pretty much escort them everywhere so that we can account for everybody at all times, because if you don’t keep your eye on them, they’re gone. It’s an institutional thing that they’ve got to deal with. Herding cats is about right.”
The Heart of the Machine
The Kabul Military Training Centre (KMTC) is the big, noisy centre of the army-building machine. It’s where vast numbers of raw recruits receive their basic weapons, field craft and, in some cases, literacy training. More than 200 Canadians are there helping to oversee the process. The place is literally bustling. There are groups of Afghans in crisp new uniforms running down the roads at all times.
“KMTC is the premier training centre in Afghanistan,” says Colonel Mike Minor, the Canadian in charge of coalition forces at the camp. “They pump through about 60,000 troops, so about the size of the Canadian Forces, every single year. They train soldiers, NCOs and officers, and the magnitude of that means the quality of the training is not really what we would like to see, but as the Russians said sometimes, quantity is a quality of its own. And it’s correct. When you have [at least 7,000 recruits] undergoing training, there’s pressure on resources. It’s only an eight-week course, so there’s pressure on time. The instructor-to-student ratio is not great.”
The final quantity of Afghan security forces by 2014 is a bit of a moving target, but it will be more or less 300,000. Between now and then, it’s a full-out sprint to get ready for the transition. “The race to 2014 is maybe or maybe not a misnomer,” says Minor. “As has been communicated to us right now, by 2013—so it’s kind of slipped by a year. The window’s got a little bit closer—we’ll have turned over security and also institutions like this, so all of the training functions to them. But there could be ongoing operations to monitor what they’re up to. Militarily that’s the sense we get, is there’ll be something here, whether it be from NATO, Americans, or other countries, possibly Canada, if Canada decides to extend the mission.”
Afghans themselves are keenly aware of the implications of 2014. Not only will NATO combat troops be largely pulling out, but there will be an inevitable decline in aid and reconstruction money coming into the country, a source of income that currently makes up a huge percentage of the Afghan government’s budget. “It’s a key point because the Afghans also have this perception that we’re all leaving and just like that, no one’s going to be around. What that’s unfortunately done is created this climate where they’re hoarding, they’re preparing for a future without us. And it’s actually, in a sense, hurting the mission a little bit because they don’t understand that there should be ongoing international support moving into the future,” says Minor. “You see it at every level. Part of the increase in corruption perhaps could be blamed on that, that people are just trying to prepare for a worse future.”
Meanwhile, work continues on the ground at the Training Centre. Much like at the Fielding Centre, the Canadians don’t really have a direct role in training Afghan recruits, at least not on paper. “I have working for me directly, just over 400 advisers from 10 different countries, including about 200, I would say about 210 Canadians, but there’s actually about 280 on the camp now. But we’re in an advising role, so we’re at present a shadow force kind of providing advice. The only way we can effectively do that is to build very good relationships, and so the way we do that is spend time with them.”
As a part of Minor’s job, he too is advising his Afghan counterpart at a command level—currently Brigadier-General Patiani—on issues he’ll face running a large training facility.
“Quantity time eventually leads to quality time, we say, and they start to listen, they start to ask questions. But our transition plan right here actually starts next summer and then carries on for about a year, where KMTC will eventually transition to Patiani and I’m pretty confident that they’ll be ready for it at that time. KMTC’s a real good news story.”
In the interim, Minor is focused on trying to improve the quality of the Afghan leadership as much as possible within the tight parameters he’s been handed. “We’ve already seen in officer training—where, because they were being more rigorous in their selection, the courses dropped from about 150 down to 50—that suddenly with the improved instructor-student ratio, the quality of the officers went up. You know, the Afghans are capable of learning, they’re capable of excelling, but the magnitude of the task means we’re working on good-enough quality rather than great quality.
“With Brigadier-General Patiani, he knows how he wants to run his ship, and he doesn’t need a heck of a lot of advice. Nevertheless, I spend a couple hours with him every day. One area that I’m working with him on right now is the ANA (Afghan National Army) legal system. He does not have a very good understanding of the powers that he, as a commander, has to instil discipline by means other than locking guys in jail or sending them to Kandahar, or, occasionally a slap on the face. No violence, there’s no beating of soldiers and that sort of thing, but [Afghan commanders] feel handcuffed by their legal system, so right now we’re having the ANA legal school come over to brief he and his staff on it with a view to making them understand that there is this emerging legal system they can use to properly discipline soldiers—less draconian methods than in the past.”
This is all to say that Minor grasps the same frustrations Younghusband faces at the Fielding Centre and similarly has hopes things will improve. The code of discipline, he says, “is not understood. They have one now, but it’s not out there in the hinterland.”
Interestingly, at Minor’s level of involvement, a whole new challenge comes into focus, which is that the Afghan supply and logistics capability is, well, notoriously underdeveloped. “Where we need to do a lot of work is on their own systems and their own processes, so they become more efficient. Logistics is a real problem—it’s my main effort right now. It may sound funny, but when I see soldiers on an eight-week course going for three or four weeks training in flip-flops and civilian clothing, that’s not good enough. And we have a moral responsibility to help them, because some of these soldiers after eight weeks are going to go to the corps and the fight and they’re not ready.”
The Chameleon’s Revenge
There is another issue complicating the training effort Canada is currently involved with, and it’s this: the Afghan security forces have an unsettling propensity to attack their NATO allies with whatever weaponry falls to hand. It’s not exactly a game changer, but it’s safe to say it’s a major concern for any Canadians who spend time around locked-and-loaded Afghans.
There have been at least 40 such incidents of Afghan-on-ally violence in the last five years. France actually decided to withdraw troops after an incident in January that resulted in four French deaths.
The causes of the violence are varied and often unclear. Sometimes the Taliban take credit and claim the shooter was an infiltrator, sometimes it seems to have been a personal grievance. Whatever the case, it can be clearly reported that Canadians are very wary. Minor, for example, has felt the need to unsnap the holster on his loaded pistol during a confrontation with a senior Afghan soldier inside a boardroom. Another Canadian officer who regularly goes to the firing range with Afghans related that he always goes ready to fire and that he briefs the Afghans not to turn around and face him with a loaded weapon or he will shoot them. Major Travis McKeen, 3PPCLI, reported that at the Fielding Centre the only time they give the Afghans ammunition is immediately before sending them off the camp, and during that period all Canadians have live ammunition loaded and are wearing their body armour and helmets. “Probably the most dangerous time for the coalition,” says McKeen, is when the Afghans receive their ammo just before leaving. “We all wear full body armour on deployment nights just because of that potential.”
Time to Leave
The ultimate question is whether this army that Canada is helping to train will be able to live up to its assignment of securing Afghanistan. That’s unknown. What is fairly certain is that catastrophic defeat is unlikely—despite what the doomsayers predict, it’s hard to envision the Taliban taking Kabul by force in 2016, for example—there are just too many well-armed ANA for that to happen. As Minor said, quantity is a quality all its own.
In addition, the debate swirling around the 2014 end-date is somewhat disingenuous. From interviews conducted inside Afghanistan and out, it seems most likely that just as 2014 marks a shift in the ground war from a NATO-lead to an Afghan-lead, so it marks a shift in U.S. strategy towards Afghanistan. The strategy of stabilizing Afghanistan via massive troop deployments has proven difficult to implement—after more than 10 years the violence shows no clear sign of relenting. So the shift in strategy is towards political engagement, specialized military assistance to allied Afghans and, undoubtedly, retention of the ability to conduct raids and even bombing should things get out of hand. In short, in 2014 the strategy shifts to containment.
But even then, the outcome is uncertain. What the political landscape will look like in Kabul in 2018 is anyone’s guess—women’s rights, childhood education, even democracy itself, none are certain under the new strategy. As long as the Afghan government does its best to follow international law—i.e. harbour no terrorist masterminds or training camps—then the new strategy will be marketed as successful.
It will be a period of some reckoning for Afghanistan. The time where it was advisable, even profitable, to be a professional chameleon is ending. It will be up to Afghans to decide their own fate.
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