Canada strengthens the Afghan army to put down the insurgency -

Canada strengthens the Afghan army to put down the insurgency

Soldiers armed with cultural training are teaching a new generation of Afghans how to protect their family

The new game plan: pencils, not guns
Photographs by Blair Gable

“This is the highlight of my career,” says Warrant Officer Trevor Lavallée, a combat veteran of Afghanistan who is leaving for Kabul to be part of Canada’s new training mission there. “I’m taking everything I’ve learned, and I’m trying to teach a new generation of Afghans to go out there and protect their families and their country.”

The 35-year-old is part of the second rotation of Canadian soldiers to deploy to Afghanistan since Canada’s combat role there ended in July. There are 900 or so trainers and support staff in the contingent; all will be in Kabul by the end of March. Many of them, like Lavallée, have been before—in a combat role. “I think it took the weight off my parents’ and my wife’s shoulders, knowing that I’m not going out to pick a fight anymore, knowing that I’m going over there to help,” he says.

But the training mission is certainly not without danger.

NATO trainers have been killed by the Afghans they are in the country to help. France cut short its mission by one year after four of its soldiers were murdered by an Afghan soldier last month. Col. Greg Smith, who leads the Canadian contingent, says most Afghans are ashamed by these actions. The Canadians will nevertheless be armed and are prepared to protect themselves. “You’re in a very violent country,” says Lt. Col. Alex Ruff, commanding officer of 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, who is deploying next month with many of his men. “You can’t eliminate the risks.” He’s more worried about improvised explosive devices than attacks against Canadian troops by Afghan trainees.

“There really is no inside-outside the wire. We work in main camps, but at the same time you’ve got to move from wherever they’re living to where they’re going in the training areas,” says Ruff. In October, a suicide bomber driving a car packed with explosives rammed an armoured bus in Kabul carrying Master Cpl. Byron Greff of the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, killing him and 16 others. Greff was the first Canadian to die in Afghanistan since the combat mission there ended.

The international training mission was launched in 2009, in an effort to unite the fragmented efforts of the various outside countries trying to help Afghanistan build its security forces. Results until then had been poor. Many Afghan soldiers couldn’t write their names or count the bullets in their rifles’ magazines. And they were prone to desertion, with more enlistees quitting in the autumn of 2009 than were recruited. NATO tried to reverse this decline by coordinating training under one mission and investing heavily in the basics: more than 2,000 Afghan teachers were hired simply to teach the country’s soldiers how to read. More than teaching infantrymen to shoot straight, Canadian forces are helping to establish branch schools and training centres that will—hopefully—professionalize Afghanistan’s security forces over the long term, laying the foundation for their future military self-reliance.

Smith, a rangy soldier with sharp-angled features and a special forces background who is a veteran of at least two previous tours in Afghanistan, says his contingent enjoys some advantages the first Canadian trainers to arrive in Kabul did not. For starters, they can build on lessons their predecessors had to learn from scratch. Smith says soldiers in this rotation will focus more on individual, one-on-one mentoring. “I don’t need platoons and companies swinging around Kabul,” he says. “I need individuals passing on their years of experience and professional advice.” The Canadians now deploying also had more time to study and prepare. All have received some language and cultural training; about 300 of them have received at least 40 hours of instruction on how to speak Dari, the predominant language in Kabul.

The bilingual Smith likens the effects Canadian soldiers speaking basic Dari will have on Afghans to that of anglophones making an effort to speak French when driving through Quebec: it softens tensions and breaks the ice. “I actually think it’s a force protection thing too,” he says. “If you don’t dishonour somebody in what you say, and if you get to know them personally through your language and cultural skills, you’re protecting yourself. He’s now—he’s not a friend—but he’s somebody that respects you. You respect them. And you respect each other.”

Lavallée first served in Kabul almost a decade ago and says he’s anxious to see what has changed. When he arrives, he will be paired with a counterpart in the Afghan army who he’s been told is gruff and stubborn. “I’m going to try to work him as hard as possible. And if it means me putting my arm around him and trying to be his best friend, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to be his best friend. I’ll work every angle I can to make my way work, but I’m not there to force it down his throat. I’ll give him some tips. And if he wants to use them, he can. And if he doesn’t, it’s their army, not mine.”

Maj. Aleem Sajan, an aerospace engineer, will be working at Kabul’s air force university. He recently completed French language training in Quebec City, and while there he volunteered at a mosque attended by many Afghans. They taught him Dari when he wasn’t working to learn French. “We as Canadians are very well equipped for this job. We already have a multicultural society, so I would like to think we’re sensitive to the cultural side of that,” says Sajan, who immigrated to Canada from Tanzania at 14. “I grew up in a different culture. The training we did here, put together with that experience that I had in the past, will hopefully make me very proficient in what we’re trying to do.”

Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan will end in 2014. It’s been a long and costly engagement, costing billions of dollars and more than 150 lives. As it winds down, the soldiers involved have modest hopes. “We’re not going to go there and change the world,” says Smith. “Are they going to be a Western-style military? Absolutely not. They have no tradition of that. But they are warriors. They are very proud of their country. And they want to defend it.”