Canada’s next mission -

Canada’s next mission

In 2009, the Afghan army lost more soldiers than it recruited, 86 per cent of recruits couldn’t spell their name. That’s all changing.

Canada's next mission

Xinhua News Agency/eyevine/Redux

Headquarters for Canada’s new training mission in Afghanistan smells of fresh-cut wood and is located around the corner from a gymnasium with wall murals that proclaim “Freedom over tyranny” and “Afghanistan rising from the ashes.” The art is obscured by new construction.

Located at Camp Phoenix, a NATO base in Kabul, this is where the Canadian Forces will run the new phase of Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan. The current combat mission in Kandahar province ends in July, but Ottawa has committed to keep 950 trainers in the country until 2014 as part of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan. Most will be based in Kabul, with smaller contingents, including police and medical advisers, in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif.

Col. Peter Dawe, a combat veteran of the war in Kandahar and former commanding officer of 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, is deputy commander of the Canadian mission. Because its commander, Canadian Maj.-Gen. Michael Day, is also in charge of the entire army component of the multinational NATO training mission, Dawe will be running day-to-day operations for the Canadians. “It’s not to dismiss for a second what we’ve been doing for 10 years down south. It was an incredible accomplishment, and I think it’s set the conditions for the surge and the successes that are being achieved down there,” says Dawe. “But this is where the campaign will be won or lost.”

For years after the Taliban’s overthrow in 2001, efforts to train Afghan security forces were fragmented and under-resourced. Different countries had different methods. There was little coordination. The results were poor. It wasn’t until November 2009 that NATO launched a unified training mission for the Afghan army, air force and police. “In 2009, 86 per cent of the enlistees in the army and police force were illiterate,” says Maj.-Gen. James Mallory, the American deputy commander of NTM-A. “And by illiterate, I mean they couldn’t write their own name. They couldn’t count the fingers on their own hand. So you could imagine the difficulty of training any kind of capable, competent force that is bereft of any ability to communicate or to have numeric skills.

“Imagine, if you can, telling them to take three rounds to load into a magazine. You have to hold up your fingers. There weren’t enough trainers to adequately train all the soldiers. All you could really do is familiarize them with their weapon. And only about 35 per cent would actually qualify with their weapon. Now, if you’re looking at a metric as far as producing a professional soldier, and only one third can hit the target, I think by anybody’s measurement that doesn’t measure up.”

Few of these poorly trained soldiers stuck around long. In the fall of 2009, the Afghan army lost more soldiers than it recruited. This has changed, says Mallory. The army now gets 6,000 new recruits every month. All of them are being taught to read. “We run the largest literacy program in Afghanistan,” he says. “We employ over 2,100 Afghan teachers whose job is simply to provide that literary training to soldiers who are going through the training bases and also who are out there in the fielded force, so that when they’re not doing operations they can come back to their forward operating base or police station and work on literacy.”

Mallory says NATO aims to have 85 per cent of new police and army graduates able to read at a Grade 1 level. “Now, that might not sound like much. But that first-grade education gives them the ability to count to 100. It gives them the ability to record the serial number on their weapon and account for it. It gives them, for the first time, the ability to know how much they’re getting paid. And it therefore eliminates opportunities for corruption and the ability of individuals to skim off other people’s paycheques without their knowledge. Corruption thrives in darkness.”

Afghan police still have a reputation for graft. Stories about petty shakedowns abound. Part of fixing this problem, says Mallory, is “flushing out the system with the newly trained.”

Dawe argues the training mission will impact Afghanistan for decades after it ends. “When these young troops and junior officers, even beyond their military careers, go back to their villages,” he says, “think about the implications of the secondary and tertiary effects of improving literacy across the country—self-esteem, the awareness of options. It seems pretty obvious to me that this is a great initiative.”

What the Afghan security forces now need most, say NATO officials, is not just capable foot soldiers, but the means to keep them equipped, armed, fed, and able to train other new recruits. NATO is therefore establishing military branch schools to teach skills such as logistics, engineering and communications. “This is about self reliance. We need to leave, and pretty soon,” says Dawe. “It’s about establishing sustainable institutions, schools, hubs of logistics, all of the institutional infrastructure that you need and that you find in any other military. The theme is the professionalization of this military.”

Dawe knows many of the Canadian soldiers arriving to run the training mission. About 400 are coming from his old unit in the Princess Patricias. Many have combat experience and have already worked on teams mentoring Afghan soldiers. “They understand the strategic context of this,” he says. “They understand the significance of this next chapter in the campaign.”

Success is not assured, says Dawe. Recruiting is going well in the junior ranks, but the Afghan security forces still lack well-trained leaders. There’s a lot to accomplish by 2014, when Canada’s training mission will end and NATO plans to hand over the security lead to Afghans.

But Dawe is confident. He says the Canadian trainers have credibility because of their combat experience. “And they also bring that other dimension, that cultural sensitivity and people skills.” Their mission, he believes, is crucial. Without security, everything else in Afghanistan collapses. A state that cannot defend itself will not last.

“There are two components that will defeat the insurgency,” says Dawe. “One is this professional and trustworthy and capable Afghan security force. The other is a literate population. Those are the two greatest fears of the insurgents. You have an informed and literate population, and they just won’t succumb quite as easily to this fear-mongering that the Taliban and other insurgents are so good at.”