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Training For Kandahar

Two local combatants and a member of Task Force Afghanistan (centre) stand guard during a meeting between Canadian and Afghan leaders.

He’d been driving me around Kandahar province for almost an hour before I realized the guy was probably a Taliban spy.

Sure, he was friendly, but it just didn’t add up. His long shaggy beard and traditional Afghan clothes were pretty standard for the region, but his apparently precise knowledge of the Canadian Forces’ movements and operations was not. Furthermore, he had some fake American money–emblazoned with George Bush’s head–tucked into the truck’s dashboard. He said he used the money to pay off local village leaders. Very shady.

But it wasn’t until we came across a Canadian patrol that my uneasiness changed to suspicion. When we got close he gunned the engine and darted up behind the convoy’s rearmost light armoured vehicle (LAV). He was way too close–he seemed to be testing their response–and so the Royal Canadian Regiment gunners went into action. They shouted, pointed their rifles and when he still didn’t back off they started to get serious. The soldiers sighted their rifles and hunkered down into the LAV; it was clear they were about to ‘light us up.’

Just then my driver’s self-preservation instinct must have kicked in because he slowed down and the LAVs roared off. “I shouldn’t get killed,” he said in a heavy French accent, turning his head to smile. “It wouldn’t be good.”

You see, Warrant Officer Jean Asseline is no Taliban, he’s not even an Afghan, he just plays one here, at the new Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre (CMTC) in Wainwright, Alta.

CMTC is the Canadian Forces new high-concept and high-tech proving ground. From April onward, every task force will conduct pre-deployment training here, in an environment and situation painstakingly crafted to simulate the upcoming theatre of operations. “CMTC is the army’s national training centre, responsible for the high readiness training of all army task forces,” said Colonel Craig Hilton, CMTC’s commanding officer. “This will be the training venue where they are certified as operationally deployable. The training venue is intended to provide the type of complex terrain the troops are experiencing now in missions overseas. We use all the intelligence and open-source means at our disposal to try to structure the environment to suit that purpose.”

The program, which was several years in the making, launched on April 19 with Exercise Maple Guardian. The first group through the centre was Rotation 2 of Task Force Afghanistan (TFA-2), who are deploying to Kandahar in August 2006.

Drawn largely from 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group, based at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, TFA-2 is comprised of three infantry companies from 1 RCR, plus an engineer squadron from 2 Combat Engineer Regt., a Royal Canadian Dragoon armoured reconnaissance squadron and various levels of headquarter staff.

More than 1,200 members of TFA-2 spent over a month at CMTC, picking up vital knowledge about Afghan culture and the delicate tactics of counter-insurgency warfare. “It was only a number of years ago that you would have seen troops here preparing for deployment by practising full-scale attacks on built-in Warsaw pact positions,” said Col. Fred Lewis, who will be the task force commander for Roto 2. “But now, maybe for the first time, we’re seeing a very realistic contemporary operating environment.”

Counter-insurgency operations, which are closely related to what the CF calls full spectrum operations, are a state of conflict somewhere between policing and war. Winning such a fight requires capturing the ‘hearts and minds’ of the locals through humanitarian operations and reconstruction, while simultaneously providing security for those locals by fighting off the bad guys.

It is a notoriously difficult mission. In his classic book Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, David Galula points out a central dilemma facing counter-insurgency forces. Galula argues that intelligence is the principal source of information on guerrillas, and intelligence has to come from the population, but the population will not talk unless it feels safe, and it does not feel safe until the insurgent’s power has been broken. Breaking that power requires intelligence, hence the dilemma.

“The bottom line here is we are no longer doing a conventional fight,” said Lewis. “The contemporary operating environment is different, it’s complex, and there are a whole bunch of terms that are associated with trying to grip the contemporary environment–three block war, full spectrum operation, counter-insurgency operations.

“Counter-insurgency is interesting. We are just trying to get a grip on it. I mean, we haven’t gripped it yet. The CF has not studied counter-insurgency operations since maybe the early 1970s, but since then we haven’t thought about it.”

Asseline is one of the guys helping the task force figure out how to succeed in this kind of operation. The engineer volunteered to join several hundred other Canadian Forces members in CMTC’s resident opposing force (Opfor) company. Opfor members are charged with doing everything they can to simulate the Afghan environment. Split into different cells, some of them will become cautious villagers, some will be Afghan national army members, some will be suicide bombers and some will be spies.

Asseline, who has himself served a tour in Kabul, plays several roles as part of the simulation. He assists a local governor, works for some international aid organizations and he just might be feeding information to the bad guys, too.

Spread across a 670-square-kilometre training area, this replica of Kandahar province features multiple Canadian bases, insurgents hiding in the hills and no less than four Afghan villages where over a hundred of Asseline’s fellow Opfor actors live full time.

It’s the soldier’s job to gain the trust of these villagers and keep them secure. In the Canadian effort to pacify Kandahar province, the real challenge is convincing the locals that their allegiance is best placed with the Afghan national government and the coalition forces, not the local warlords, criminals, Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters that make up the insurgent resistance. “People that think that it’s all about killing the insurgents–that’s too simple, you’re not going to be successful in an operation like this by going out and killing bad guys,” said Lewis. “I think the key is to convince the people that their legitimate government–one that’s been democratically elected and recognized by the United Nations–is the way to go. And you have to do a whole bunch of things to convince them to support their government.”

This is no easy task, for Afghanistan has been occupied–and abandoned–many times before. The Afghans know their lives will often depend on who they choose to trust. Canadian lives, too, depend on it.

Visiting the simulated villages of Nakhonay, Belanday and Loy Karezak it’s clear that a substantial effort was made to recreate a small part of Afghanistan here in Canada. Walking up into the steep hillside Nakhonay, listening to Palestinian reservist sing the Muslim call-to-prayer in Arabic over the village loudspeaker, it’s hard to believe this is Alberta. The villagers, hearing the call, come streaming out of their homes and walk down to the mosque, where they kneel down on their mats and complete the Muslim prayer ceremony. And they do it five times a day.

The villages are colour-coded by their degree of friendliness. At the beginning of the exercise the villages are all cautious-grey–but if the Canadians perform well the villages slowly begin to accept them and the village becomes green. If something goes wrong and the villagers lose faith, the village goes black. It sounds easy, but it’s a difficult game to win.

In this exercise, there are a lot of different ways to make mistakes. If the Canadians roll in during prayer time, that’s not good. If they don’t show proper courtesy to the village elders, that’s bad too. If they provide assistance like well-digging and school building to one village but not another, that will be seen as a grave insult. “You can never know enough about the culture,” said Asseline. “The commanders have to understand the importance of cultural awareness, it has to be done, and coming here, they will understand.”

Simply navigating through the complex Afghan culture is one challenge, finding and fixing the enemy is something else entirely. This is particularly so in Kandahar province, where ever-shifting allegiances makes the distinction between friend and enemy pretty vague, even to locals. In addition, each of the four villages at CMTC has resident Taliban spies. It’s the soldier’s job to find and neutralize the unfriendly villagers without harming or alienating the friendly civilians. “Everything you do has consequence and the soldiers have to understand that. You can’t just blow people up…it’s a different concept now,” said Asseline. “If you kill civilians then whatever message your force is trying to bring is shot and you have to start over.”

Each day at CMTC the soldiers will deal with roughly three non-kinetic events. During one of these events, the villagers at Belanday discovered an explosive device, potentially a roadside bomb, and turned it over to members of a passing task force patrol. Unfortunately, the patrol didn’t deal with the situation in the best way possible. Instead of setting up a security perimeter and calling in the engineers to secure the bomb, the patrol left it in the field and went off to seek assistance. “Right now that town was grey, it’s getting closer to black now,” said Asseline.

Just because an event is scheduled to be non-kinetic doesn’t mean it will actually happen that way. In the first few days of the exercise there was a serious misunderstanding between the Canadians and the local Afghan National Army unit that led to the shooting death of Loy Karazek’s village leader. As a result, the town became hostile–most definitely black–and TFA-2 had to begin working extra hard to recover from its error.

Beyond the problems the soldiers face in trying to win the hearts and minds of the villagers, they also have to deal with an enemy force that is actively working against them. Roadside bombs, mortars and sniper fire are all common. Early into the exercise, the Taliban cell of the Opfor company had already done a heavy amount of damage to the task force. In one ambush Taliban took out an entire column, wounding a colonel and his regimental sergeant major. Most of the command staff was not eager to talk about that incident, however.

In addition to direct attacks, the Taliban have launched a disinformation campaign to discredit the task force. They creep into the villages at night to post leaflets that allege the Canadians are doing all sorts of bad things, everything from abandoning Afghanistan to committing atrocities against villagers.

Things don’t always work out for the sneaky insurgents however. On an early morning near the beginning of the exercise a squad of Taliban was captured by a group of RCR as they prepared to set up a roadside bomb. According to the Opfor commander, the bombers were caught because they got their timings a little messed up and were spotted in the dawn light as they got into position. Much like the RCR themselves, the enemy at CMTC are doing their best to become a learning organization and so this was one mistake Alberta’s Taliban won’t soon make again.

Behind all the advances in training realism lies a new technology that makes it all possible. The new Weapons Effects Simulation (WES) system is the crown jewel in the CMTC’s arsenal of training tools. The laser-based weapons simulator, which costs well over $100 million, can accurately replicate the effects of both direct and indirect weapons, like grenades, roadside bombs and mortars.

For the soldiers, WES consists of a system of sensors they strap on over their gear. Whenever a soldier is hit by direct or indirect fire, these 14 sensors will calculate how badly they are injured. If the soldier is killed, the vest beeps loudly and won’t stop beeping until the player lies down. If they stand up again, the vest re-commences beeping.

If the sensors calculate that the soldier is merely injured, the system will provide information to the soldier about the extent of his or her wounds, including how long they have to live. Fellow soldiers can apply first aid to keep the wounded alive. In addition, medics can administer virtual morphine and other aid from their special control panels.

In a neat twist, lightly injured soldiers will still be able to fire their weapons, while the weapons of dead soldiers will be disabled by the central computer. However, if the rifle is picked up by one of his still-healthy comrades, the computer will recognize that and the rifle will be operational again.

For the larger area weapons, much of the action will take place not in the battle space but back at exercise control, in the memory banks of the main computer system. Everything from artillery rounds to chemical weapons can be fired virtually–that is, the soldier on the field will not necessarily see a puff of smoke or hear a bang, instead his or her vest will just inform them that, sadly, they are now dead.

For the officers and commanders, the WES system isn’t merely useful for simulating combat. As each of the soldiers have GPS units and communications devices built into their vests, commanders can get instant feedback on where and how the engagements are developing.

Unfortunately, the WES system wasn’t running at full speed this first exercise at CMTC. The size of the task force meant there wasn’t enough equipment to go around, so the soldiers had to use the older Miles laser gear instead.

The theory behind CMTC is that by putting the soldiers in the same situations they’ll face on deployment, not only will they be prepared for the dangers but their higher performance will be good for the mission too. Interestingly, mission success in Afghanistan may eventually depend on more than CMTC can deliver. No matter how tactically and culturally savvy the Canadian troops become, providing the kind of blanket security necessary to achieve the mission goals could require a much different approach. According to TFA-2 commander Lewis, without this security, coalition success will be elusive.

“For example, if you get a little town whose mayor and population say ‘hey, we’re with the government,’ and then that night some of these bad guys come in and kill him because we can’t protect him, well, if that happens we’re not going to convince the people that they should support their legitimate government.”

However, actually providing this protection to the hundreds of villages across the Canadian area of operations in Afghanistan isn’t something TFA-2 can really prepare for at CMTC. Instead this kind of security can only be achieved through the training and deployment of massive numbers of indigenous Afghan security forces. “The key is to keep the insurgents isolated from the population,” said Lewis. “In this type of an operation, this is almost always the hardest thing to do–and we are never going to be able to do that with the Canadian Forces and coalition forces alone, because the numbers are just far too small. You know, Kandahar province can eat up the whole Canadian army, plus. Traditionally in these types of operations, you’re talking 20 to 1 odds or more. So what is the answer? The answer is to develop the Afghan security forces, that’s the only way it’s going to work. We have to professionalize the Afghan national army–make it effective–we have to work on their police forces, their border forces, their customs–that all has to be worked on.”

During the upcoming rotation, approximately 60 of the 2,300 Canadian soldiers will be directly working towards this key goal. While other countries are also contributing to training the Afghan forces, only time will tell if enough effort was made to complete this most important task.

As Lewis points out, not only is a strong Afghan security force necessary to defeat the insurgents, it’s also necessary to create a stable government and functioning state, which is the strategic goal, after all. “You go into a failed or failing state, that doesn’t have a democratic background, and how do you make an effective military, one that is responsive to the government in that democratic way? It’s not something that happens overnight. If it was an opened-ended commitment, we would not come home until the Afghan security forces could do it themselves.”

Meanwhile, back at CMTC, the soldiers are focused on more immediate problems, like figuring out how to negotiate the complex and dangerous mission ahead in the most successful–and safest–possible way.

After their month contending with Alberta’s deadly Taliban and the Afghan villagers at CMTC, the soldiers of TFA-2 will be well prepared to deal with insurgent tactics and likely ready to display their new-found sensitivity to Afghan culture.

But in the early days of their exercise, already bloodied and deep on the wrong side of a virtual body count, many TFA-2 soldiers had clearly grasped a key lesson from this hard, realistic training. It’s a lesson that could be heard all across CMTC, from all ranks, and it’s hard to argue with its truth: ‘It’s better to die here a thousand times,’ goes the saying, ‘than die once over there.’

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