Monday, October 08, 2007
Long Way to Go Still but Canadian Training of Afghan Army Making Progress
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -From the Canadian Press
Canadian soldiers look on as members of the Afghan National Army crouch behind barriers at Camp Hero and lob grenades overhead.
There is no big bang. These are fake grenades, and Camp Hero is a practice range just outside the international military base at Kandahar Airfield.
And that's a good thing because not all of the grenades land on target.
When they first took to the firing range a few weeks ago, the mostly young and inexperienced soldiers of the 201st Brigade fired wildly toward their targets - if they could get their weapons to fire at all.
"They were shooting from the hip and leaving Allah to guide the bullets," says Capt. Sylvain Caron, who is in charge of the Canadian team mentoring 3,000 members of the Afghan National Army.
"We had to explain that's not exactly how it works."
But the Canadians who have taken on the task, the 140 members of the Operational Mentoring Liaison Team, are patient and determined.
For Sgt. Dave Querry, it's a matter of honour.
"I have friends who died here. Their families are in mourning," says Querry, who is training Afghan infantrymen.
"I don't want to leave this country thinking my friends died for nothing."
Querry says Canada has a job to do.
"We can't leave with the job half done," he says. "It wouldn't be right."
Regardless of the insurgent death tolls and the ground won or lost, the Taliban will likely remain in Afghanistan for a long time. Aside from the unlikely prospect of insurgents putting down their weapons to join the Afghan government, the only hope for long-term peace in this war-battered country is an effective national security force.
The Afghan army is not up to the job but they've come a long way.
A year ago, when Canadians took on the mentoring program, it seemed an impossible task.
Although made up of many seasoned fighters, the Afghan army was short-handed, undisciplined and out-manoeuvred by Taliban insurgents. Their death toll was staggering.
Col. Mohammad Anbia, commander of the 5th Company, 1st Kandak of the 205th Brigade, has been a soldier for over two decades.
A regal man with a salt-and-pepper beard, 43-year-old Anbia fought the mujahedeen when he was with Afghan government forces that were allied with the Russians in the 1980s. Later on, he fought the Taliban.
He is a proud fighter and reluctant to admit the Afghans needed help. But he says he sees day to day changes as his men work closely with the Canadians.
"We're getting their soldiers' experience," he says through an interpreter.
His company is on active duty, supplying their own forces in place at forward operating bases throughout Kandahar province.
The Afghan army is holding its own in some areas already and they are poised to undertake an operation of their own.
Yet Anbia, who is the commander of the logistical company - a new idea to the Afghan army - says the Canadians and international forces must stay a long while yet.
"If they leave Afghanistan, maybe it will be a civil war again," he says.
"The Afghan people are very good at killing each other," he says with a wry laugh.
While he welcomes the Canadians who he says have sacrificed to help his country, but he would welcome better equipment even more.
"They have Humvees and armour," Anbia says of coalition forces. "We have Rangers ... The enemy has RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and we have Kalashnikovs."
A short time later, as Anbia strolls across the base, one of the Afghan army's new International trucks drives by with the crumpled skeleton of a Ford Ranger in the back.
"Bomb," says one soldier. He doesn't speak English, but this word he knows.
Anbia's wish list is long, and understandably so because the equipment of the Afghan army pales in comparison with their international counterparts.
"We have to tell them: 'We're not here to give you stuff. We're here to mentor you'," says Maj. Regis Bellemare, a 16-year veteran of the Canadian military who has taken on training the logistical support team.
But equipment is not their only, or even their biggest, problem.
There are 42 U.S.-bought Humvees and dozens of International trucks and Ford Rangers sitting in a yard on the base, waiting for drivers.
Most Afghan soldier just want to get in the field and fight.
"They're warriors. They have a warrior mentality," says Chief Warrant Officer Guy Suttenwood-Johnston. "They want to fight."
It is a long process to instil in the Afghans the idea of a military-support system with logistics and planning.
Even the idea of dedicated mechanics to maintain vehicles was foreign.
Usually, there are 100 soldiers in this company of the 201st Brigade.
But on one particular day, there were 35. The day before was pay day and most of the company left for home overnight.
"They're like us. They miss their families," says Couturier.
There are 45,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army. The Canadian team is mentoring 3,000 of them. The United States and the Netherlands are also involved in training.
And the benefit is not all one-sided.
The Afghan army's greatest strength is just being Afghan. They've tipped Canadians to the locations of roadside bombs and other insurgent activity.
"They know the ground. They know the people and they know the Taliban," says Bellemare.
"They have good intelligence."