A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Archive for April 2012

Dealing With Bad Press And Perceptions

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I have to learn to stop reading comments to online news stories. And columnists who are armchair generals.

One thing I hoped keeping this blog would accomplish was educating people a bit about what Canadian soldiers, ISAF, NATO, all of us are actually doing in Afghanistan. I think it’s an important undertaking, because frankly, most average people on the street barely have any idea where Afghanistan is on a map, let alone understand what brought us here in the first place, what’s happening now, and what’s succeeding.

I don’t want to sound like a cheerleader giving the glossed-over story, but I’m sure most of you can understand why I have to be cautious about being too candid. The news, however, is generally pretty decent, without having to spin it.

One of the comments I’ve seen a lot goes something like this: “We’ve been there for ten years! How come we’re still needing to train these people?!” or something along that line. As one comment to a recent post mentioned, I might have been a little unclear about how long we’ve been training – efforts to build and train the Afghan National Army aren’t new – they’ve been going on since 2002 or so. That said, it’s not something that’s quick to accomplish.

Consider what we’re starting with. Afghanistan by 2001 had endured 23 years of almost ceaseless war – both the Soviet invasion, and the civil war that followed. Even from 1996 onward, there was still fighting against the Taliban. And prior to the Soviet invasion, starting with the Saur Revolution in 1973, there was fighting to various degrees throughout the country. As a result of that, a vast swath of the county’s population, especially its youth, are woefully undereducated, and illiteracy remains a massive problem throughout Afghanistan. In recent years, literally millions of children are now getting educated and learning basic literacy.

Militaries are composed of a few different groups of people. In most modern militaries, there’s three main groups – the Officers, the Non-Commissioned Officers and the Other Ranks. In Canada we call them NCM’s – Non-Commissioned Members. You can also see it commonly broken down into Officers and Enlisted Men. Training Officers isn’t particularly difficult, you want reasonably intelligent, reasonably well-educated people who can make sound plans and have leadership qualities. Training NCMs – your private soldiers, as it were, is also not particularly hard. In both cases, you need to have training institutions, actual course material and structures to train them with, and competent instructors to do that training. Now, where do you find those? In NCOs, generally. In the Canadian Army, both NCMs and Officer candidates receive the bulk of their training from NCOs – how to dress, how to do drill, how to read maps, use compasses, live and work in the field, and so on. Officers learn tactics from other officers, and tactics are their responsibility, but NCOs make Western militaries run. They handle what we often call “beans, bullets, benzene” – food, ammo, fuel, and so on. They are the backbone of our militaries because they can get all the administration done to make things work. A good NCO is priceless to an officer. From him (or her, of course), the officer will get counsel based on long experience, and will be freed of many of the menial tasks he might otherwise need to do so that he can focus on his job. As a platoon commander, my 2IC at times cooked meals for me, made sure I had coffee, and even a few times physically put me to ground (ie, to sleep) so that I’d have enough rest to be effective. They are priceless.

And they take a long time to train and develop. In days of old, the Soviet Union, and armies it developed/advised dispensed with a proper, professional NCO Corps, opting to pick recruits (often conscripts) who appeared a little fitter or smarter than others, and immediately promote them. They were largely ineffective because they didn’t have any real experience, and even if they did, it was assumed they didn’t, even the most mundane tasks still required the involvement of officers. Contrast that to the experience of many Western junior officers who will have the experience of being “steered away” from a lot of things by their NCOs, with a gentle admonishment that things are well in hand.

Afghanistan was built on that model. Even though the training system is aiming to develop a proper, professional NCO Corps, it’s hard to get buy in when you are still dealing with a lot of officers from the Soviet Era – what my interpreter refers to as the “Communist Army”. (He jokingly refers to the new ANA as the “Infidel Army”).

Developing those NCOs takes time. A Sergeant in the Canadian Army will normally have about eight years of experience under his belt in the Regular Force – a little less in the Reserves, but still quite a bit of experience, not only being trained to lead, but also training other soldiers. You cannot accelerate that development process here in Afghanistan. Or anywhere, for that matter. It’s something that even newer members of NATO (ex-Warsaw Pact countries) have difficulty with, as I understand it. Building that culture of solid, profession, empowered NCOs who are trusted by officers to do their jobs takes time. We do what we can, overall, to teach by example, to let our ANSF peers see how NCOs and Officers should work together, but getting the idea of delegation and division of tasks to make sense to them is not easy.

We are at the point now where those things are starting to work, but it’s slow going. Training structures like branch schools exist, instructor development programs and qualification training for instructors exists as well, so that competent NCO instructors can be actively involved in recruit training, for example. However, from what I’ve seen and heard in discussions with other mentors, things are not at the point where NCOs are being effectively used, and that’s probably a cultural issue that will take a long time to overcome – possibly, some muse, until all those “Communist Army” officers retire.

Delegation of authority is another complexity – because authority is conspicuous power, and while from my perspective coming from a Western professional army, delegation of authority to make decisions to the lowest possible level is makes everything work better, that concept doesn’t yet fully make sense in the ANSF. If you read any of the myriad of journal articles on OMLT experiences with Afghan units, you’ll see that good planning and rehearsals for operations is impeded by the failure to delegate. In the CF, we’re taught a process called Battle Procedure. BP can literally be used to accomplish anything – it’s actually something most people do subconsciously in their daily lives when planning to do anything. One of the keys to it is time management. On getting a task from a superior, one of the first steps is a quick time estimate – how long do I have to get it done – what timings to I have – and ideally, how do I give 2/3s of that time to my subordinates so they can get to work on their part of things. What a lot of the reports and articles I read suggested is that this doesn’t happen, meaning operations are hastily planned without effective use of time, or any of the processes we use to make sure that all the leaders involved are well-coordinated, which we do through extensive rehearsals and war-gaming wherever possible – and we always make it possible in some way.

The other common refrain I hear is “these guys know all about fighting, why are we training them”. Well, some do know how to operate a rifle, but military organizations require a lot more than that. You need clerks, cooks, medics, storemen, combat engineers, artillerymen, military police, and all sorts of other trades to make a force actually function. When you try to mesh that with that problem I mentioned above – illiteracy and innumeracy – it’s complicated. For example, training artillery units is difficult when you have a lot of soldiers who cannot read maps or do math required to effectively employ the guns. While the ANA has some pretty capable field artillery guns, they’re hobbled by the fact that their units cannot employ them to provide indirect fire effectively. Similarly, administration of a large force is a challenge with that illiteracy. Managing pay and leave in a country with a primitive banking system and rudimentary transportation infrastructure is hard. But progress is happening.

I won’t into the potential impact of corruption too much, but you can imagine what could be problems. Hoarding or theft of equipment and stores (fuel in particular as I understand it) could be a major problem. We joke in our army about how supply techs won’t give us stuff (“but if I give you this new rucksack, I won’t have one on my shelf!”), but here the power implicit in holding equipment is huge – even broken/non-serviceable stuff apparently, even when there’s a system in place to get rid of it or exchange it. I don’t know if this is a broad problem – it’s just something that is common in anecdotes about Warsaw Pact legacy armies. There are advisors heavily focused on developing the supply system, and on the surface it seems it’s generally working.

Lest I sound like I’m painting a bleak picture, though, let me be clear – things are working. I met an advisor from the Consolidated Fielding Center where newly-formed ANA Kandaks roll out the gate constantly to deploy to their garrisons, and what he told us is that he’d watch their prep and be staggered by how ridiculous it often seemed – BUT – they got out the door. I’ll remind you of that descriptor, Afghan Good, or Afghan Good Enough.

As transition moves forward and the supports of the advisory teams get withdrawn from the ANSF, they’ll find ways to deal with these challenges. They will have to. Remember how a lot of kids are taught to swim, being thrown abruptly into the water? We’re not quite going to see that happen, but what will happen is the ANSF will be forced through the transition process to find their own way – to solve their own problems. They will use some of the tools we’re giving them, and they’ll create and improvise their own ways of doing things. The final product won’t look like a modern Western professional military necessarily, just as in the broader sense there was never any illusions about turning Afghanistan into a western-style liberal democracy. It doesn’t fit the historical context – instead, Afghans will find the solutions they need to move forward, ideally – and we’ll have helped keep the wolves at bay long enough for their sheepdogs to get ready.

They proved that they can do that last week during the attacks on Kabul – they had some support from ISAF – some air support and some Special Forces support – but they did a lot of the work themselves, in a way that minimized collateral damage and repelled the assault, and life in Kabul got back to normal pretty quickly by most accounts. That’s the progress that needs to happen. But media doesn’t tell the story that way. Instead, they talk about things like the Tet Offensive, compare transition here to the largely ineffective “Vietnamization” process during that war. But it takes a lot of shoehorning and exaggeration to map Vietnam’s history (and mistakes) onto Afghanistan. It sells newspapers, though – and slow progress doesn’t.

So, the key message I have? Things are working here. It’s slow because there’s a lot of factors you won’t likely read about in most critiques, or understand if you don’t have a military background, so what I’m trying to do here is provide some of that context to complete the picture a bit. I won’t give you the rosy, all-singing, all-dancing soundbite, but a more broad perspective ideally. I hope it helps you understand why we are here and why it’s taking time to get it right.


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Today, April 25th, is ANZAC Day. It’s the 97th Anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli, where allies landed against ferocious Turkish defence, and took massive casualties. There was a “sort of” Canadian connection, because the Newfoundland Regiment was involved in that campaign as well. For Australians and New Zealanders, the former having major presence on my camp, today is their equivalent of Remembrance Day, and so this morning we formed up to pay tribute to their fallen, but also to all those who went before us as we do on Remembrance Day.

Probably my favourite part of the whole thing is the tribute paid by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to those who fell after the war in 1934 – which if I remember right is actually inscribed on the ANZAC Monument:

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country, therefore rest in peace.

There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours.

You, the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears, your sons are now lying in our bosom and they are in peace.

After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.”

Lest we forget.

Written by Nick

April 25, 2012 at 1:16 am

A Busy Week

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I’ve spent the last few days on mobile training teams – both with my ANA partners, and also as part of a team delivering some training to some coalition folks – Hungarians. It feels like I’ve been gone from the office quite a while, even though I haven’t – but part of that is from the conspicuous absence of some of the cast of characters – some of the key people are on leave right now, so it’s going to be a quiet little while.

The training I was part of delivering happened at KAIA – Kabul International Airport, which in addition to its obvious function has a lot going on in the area. It’s home to the ISAF Joint Command, among other things (and yes, you can find that on ISAF’s own website!). IJC hosted a women’s shura the other day, which conveniently coincided with our arrival. We had planned to go a day early to give us time to survey the facility we were using for the classes, meet the points of contact, and mainly, to avail ourselves of the many amenities to be found at KAIA. It may have the worst DFAC in the whole country, but it also has several PXs, a veritable strip mall of Afghan shops, and some great restaurants.

Which, because of the shura, were all closed.

So we basically were sitting on a base where there was almost nothing to do but go to the gym for the day.

The training itself went pretty well – on both accounts. Getting to the site of the first event was a little bit chaotic on account of Kabul’s terrible traffic, amplified by the heavy rain and notable lack of storm drains – entire roads were basically flooded out, we didn’t know this until we were basically stuck in it. However, things were good – the ANA instructor I went out with was excellent, the students were attentive, and we made some connections for people who have some interesting contributions to make to training, and want to participate. We’ll see how that goes. We also drank copious amounts of the best damned chai I’ve ever had, I don’t know what was different about it from regular green tea, but it was really good.

We did, finally, before leaving KAIA, get a chance to do some window shopping and get some awesome pizza from Ciano – which is basically the Italian PX. I browsed some other things I was interested in (among other things, I need clothes for when I go on leave!), but didn’t buy much, despite the valiant effort of a carpet salesman to get me to buy a stunning Kunduz carpet, but the price just wasn’t right, and I’m not buying any now anyhow.

I also spent 18 Euros on an hour long full body massage. Which was worth every penny, and then some.

Tomorrow is ANZAC Day, and given that there are several Australians on my camp, we’ll be out for a ceremony in the morning. It’ll be the first time I’ve worn my beret since I got here, and fortunately I was able to find it. Then it’s back to planning my next training adventure, probably the last chance I’ll have to do actual instruction here, because we’re having the ANA take the lead on that now, and any coalition folks who wanted to hear from us got their final notice a few weeks ago.

Written by Nick

April 24, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Eight Weeks (And Then Some)

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Friday mornings are my “weekend”. We knock off work early Thursday and don’t have to be in the office until 1pm on Friday, giving me a morning to sleep in, and generally, we all meet for pancakes at the Afghan restaurant for brunch. It’s a nice little routine.

It’s now been eight weeks I’ve been here (actually a little more – I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac at Kabul International Airport on February 23) and I’m pretty well settled in. We’ve got a pattern of life mostly established, I work with a pretty awesome team of people, and we not only get our work done, we have a fair bit of fun doing it. There’s really no one in the cell I work in that I don’t get along with. Of course, we have extra incentive to get along, it’s not that easy to just move along.

Just like at home, we have training to get done, and we’ve now worked out a schedule to keep up on it. Things like ethics training are normal components of military life, and as one of the Canadian Unit Ethics Coordinators on the ground, I have a chore to run an hour refresher on a regular basis. We have first aid refreshers, ROE training refreshers, and of course range training.

Yesterday was a pretty rainy day in Kabul, and just as you might expect, it was also the day appointed for us to go to the range. There’s only a small contingent of Canadians where I work, but we’re close to another bunch, so we pool some of our training activities, so off we drove to the 100m range. It’s a rather unusual setting, more austere than a range at home, but that’s not shocking. The plan was to do some rifle zero confirmation (that is, making sure what you see through our optical sight matches where the bullets are hitting) for those who needed it, and then do some transition shooting. That means switching between rifle/carbine and pistol, which you might need to do if for some reason your rifle fails to fire and you need to get rounds down range.

Arriving at the range, which was a good test of the four wheel drive in the beat up Toyota Land Cruiser we had for the day, we discovered the rain had created a vast sea of sucking, heavy mud. Trudging around in it wasn’t much fun, and I found myself rather glad that I had jumped at a chance to do my zeroing already, because to do it right, you have to shoot from the prone, and laying in a mud pit wasn’t my idea of a good time. Transitions, on the other hand, weren’t so bad – but it went quickly, and I honestly can’t complain, because the wind, the rain, and the wet was just unpleasant, and I was happy to get back to camp and go to the gym to warm up. The range we went to faces into a mountain, but has lots of pasture land around, and several herds of goats and sheep could be seen, their tenders paying little attention to us.

On ranges in Canada, at the end of the day’s shooting, you have to pick up brass – all the spent casings. On courses, it’s common for staff to threaten some punishment for missing any – usually 10 pushups per casing. Here, before we could even imagine picking up any brass, the ANA tend to race down to take care of it. Brass is valuable, after all. The speed with which they work makes me think that they’re the closest thing to the mythical “brass magnet” that we suggest recruits should have brought with them.

One of the training/professional development events coming up will be a rather amusing fusion of my two careers – recently, a change to the retirement benefits Canadian soldiers get was announced. It’s similar to what was done for civilian defence employees last year, which kept me busy at my day job, so I’m going to run a little seminar for my colleagues who are impacted so I can help them understand what’s changing and the financial implications. Kind of funny to see my two professions collide, but I got enough requests that it only made sense.

Things are going well. Kabul is back to normal after last week’s attack, and I traveled through the city including past the site of one of the incidents shortly after and there was no real sign of anything having happened. Life has returned to normal, I think.

A bit about Kabul. I’ll try to get some pictures at some point, but it’s a bit of a crazy city. I’ve never seen traffic anything like it. Most intersections are traffic circles with police trying to direct traffic, but the reality is that they are trying to shoehorn chaos and it barely works. Add to this pandemonium seemingly aimless pedestrians everywhere, and you have a recipe for disaster, though it doesn’t seem like there’s that many real accidents. Most vehicles are Toyota Corollas imported from everywhere. Canadian ones are particularly prized apparently, and often have Canadian flag stickers on them. Where I used to live, in Oshawa, Ontario, an Afghan-Canadian who owned a pizza shop had a side business of buying used Corollas and sending them over – there were always several parked in front of his shop. There’s also a wide assortment of buses (often old German ones) and trucks (again, commonly German, with their original marking intact), and Toyota HiAce minivans, into which you can pack about 45 Afghans.. Often an Afghan license plate is simply put on top of the original German/European one. The other popular means of conveyance are motorcycles – generally Japanese or Chinese bikes, normally 150cc or so. They’re often adorned with all sorts of personalization – flags, stickers, tassels, and carpets on the seats. They make me miss bikes, but I’ve picked out my new one for when I get home.

Signs are everywhere advertising the latest technology – 3G phones are now available here, with Roshan and Etisalat rolling out their networks. Cell phone adds are most common, but you’ll see advertising for banks, insurance companies, and so on. Business is brisk, often in little shops, but new office/commercial buildings are everywhere as well, and there’s lots under construction (though it’s from buildings under construction that the most serious attacks have been launched). In addition to internet cafes and schools, you’ll see bakeries with footbread hanging on display (they generally sport fluorescent orange and yellow awnings, I’ve noticed), and butcher shops with meat just hanging out in the open – a little bit bizarre. Apparently, some of our guys saw a cow being slaughtered in the street in the city, locals didn’t seem to think anything of it. Not exactly what you’d expect at home.

What is most astounding is the sprawl, though. Kabul’s surrounded by steep mountains, and settlements are built all up them – little goat track-like roads lead up almost impossibly steep slopes to shanty towns which make me think of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. They’re a sign of the real problem – Kabul was a city of about 500,000 until just a few years ago, now estimates place its population anywhere from 2-5 million – and the city doesn’t have adequate housing or services for them. That’s an issue they’ll have to tackle over time – but how, I’m not sure.

Written by Nick

April 20, 2012 at 1:11 pm


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Transition is the big buzzword for the entirety of NTM-A – of ISAF in general, and the goal of everything we’re doing here. We’re trying to build and develop the institutions necessary for the government here to be able to function. So the international community is involved in virtually every aspect of governance – security, economic development, fighting corruption, and so on. It isn’t a small job.

In my little corner of the world, we’re trying to figure out how to enable the Afghan National Security Forces to keep delivering the specific training that is our bailiwick. I work at what we call the “Centre of Excellence”, which means we control the course curriculum and make sure it reflects current doctrine, and manage the pool of qualified instructors. The trick is that keeping it all centralized in Kabul is not an effective strategy. Transition means that “we” becomes “them” – the ANSF. We’re gradually handing over the day to day operations to our ANA partners. They have some great instructors here, and of course some not so great ones. That’s not a uniquely Afghan problem, of course – all armies have that problem. They are presently running our “flagship” course at the moment, entirely with Afghan instructors, with us monitoring and validating the material. So far, it’s going pretty well. They’re getting slowly accustomed to the idea of having to plan for running training, but we still find that there’s a lot of cases where they cannot seem to plan ahead for even basic things. One has to wonder if they just know that we’ll swoop in and save the day. Why expend effort when you know it’ll work out anyhow? I don’t know if that’s the case, but there’s a logical argument to be made that it could be possible.

However, the bigger challenge to deal with is trying to decentralize as much as possible. Right now, with our infrastructure and capabilities, we can send mobile training teams out to the various regional training centres. We can communicate by email, video teleconferencing, and so on. We can overcome the distance between Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan with relative ease. As transition happens, that won’t be so easy, because the massive amount of ISAF resources will start being withdrawn. As a result, our efforts are building around making sure that the system that will be in place when it’s time for us to go will be functional at the lowest possible level. That means we’ll have a busy few months ahead, because we want to get as much of “the knowledge” distributed to as many qualified instructors as possible throughout the country.

Tackling that challenge has several issues, firstly coming to understand the training system that the ANA uses. I think it’s derived from the US military system (which is the source of a lot of ANA doctrine). When we got my initial explanation of it, that there are five “levels” of instructors, my colleagues and I were shocked trying to understand how that could possible work, it seemed far too complicated for really anyone. Fortunately, the briefing we got on the transition concept made it a lot more clear, it actually sounds like a formalization of systems we use, to a certain extent. The top level is the Centre Of Excellence, the group that knows the most current doctrine and creates all the training products, and then the the subsequent levels have levels of instructor training that corresponds with different degrees of detail. We have the material broken down to a basic level that is what a Private needs to know, that his squad leader/section commander can teach him, then various levels of depth aimed at different command levels.

What we have to do, by the time we reach our transition deadline, is have a system in place where the outlying regions can run their own training, at the highest possible level, without much direction or management from Kabul. We have to build it to work at a level where all the communication they’ll need on routine training matters can be done by telephone. We’re also advocating to get the Ministry of Defence to mandate our training, so that anywhere that is resistant to implementing it gets on with it – but we’ve found that’s not really a big deal so far, because our Afghan partners are pretty good at selling people on it. When we travel, we’re not only trying to teach people, we’re really pushing people to build our material into their training even before they’re mandated to do it.

If everything works right, we’ll be able to hand over the entire institution to ANA control, and they’ll be self-sustaining.


It’s not easy. There are a lot of challenges. Obviously, everyone knows the basic ones – illiteracy and innumeracy make even the most basic tasks complicated. That’s improving though, because literacy training is becoming a big focus of the ANSF. In fact, someone told me a while back that it was one of the draws for recruiting – join up, and you’ll be taught to read and write. That has to be a huge incentive. Another significant challenge is attributed to the original organization of the ANSF by the Soviets even before the occupation. In Soviet-style militaries, the idea of a professional, empowered corps of non-commissioned officers doesn’t really register. In Western armies, NCOs deal with most of the administration, and also have a lot of training responsibilities. They have authority to make decisions and a respected for holding these rolls. In fact, a great deal of training I as a Canadian officer received was delivered by NCOs – they taught my drill, weapons, fieldcraft, and all the basic soldier skills. The only thing officers specifically teach is tactics. ANSF NCOs do not seem to have anywhere near this responsibility – but there’s a lot of effort going into developing a professional, effective NCO corps. The ramifications of this are significant though – even Canadian NCOs here – who are as qualified as I to teach (and in some cases far more qualified) don’t get to because it’s seen as being “wrong”. So getting a lot of things done involves a lot more effort than we’re used to because officers wind up doing everything. It’s seen as prestigious to have control over everything possible, whereas from the perspective of a western military, delegating authority as low as possible makes things run more efficiently and effectively. We train even the most junior solder “two up” – meaning he knows the basics of the job of the guy directly above him, and the guy above him. We don’t expect them to be expert at it – but they have the basic tools to take over. And we expect them to be able to make decisions based on knowing the bigger picture plan in detail. We prize initiative, Afghans prize deference to rank/position/seniority and discourage initiative. A junior officer won’t likely challenge his commander, an NCO absolutely won’t, not even to present a good idea. We have to try to work on that, but it’s not something we’re likely to change.

That’s why we talk about Afghan Good or Afghan Good Enough – it’s not meant as a pejorative or a dismissive term – it’s just a realization that we can’t change everything, but if we can start inculcating some of the basic concepts that make things we do work better, then we’re making some progress. If we can harness the collaborative approach to governance that Afghans understand and apply it to military structures, we can probably approximate initiative. If we can get key people throughout the country to understand more concepts, we can make sure that the ANSF as a whole gets trained better. If that momentum keeps up, then we can see a functioning institution developing. As we withdraw our support – that piece of the puzzle of Afghanistan’s future can come together. And if all the different trainers and mentors and advisors can accomplish that within their little piece of the enigma of Afghanistan, then everything can come together for this country. Yes, it sounds very idealistic, but it’s possible.

Part of supporting that process, I went to a fairly high-level mentor conference the other day- probably over my head. It was more focused on the operational mentoring which goes on at ANA units, which Canada used to be involved in, but has since withdrawn from. It was interesting to hear the discussions about some of the challenges that are being dealt with – logistics being a major one, illiteracy, cultural complications, and so on. The fact that different people got together to discuss them, and that ideas were shared about dealing with them shows there’s potential for progress. As part of the USA’s plans to shift to more Security Force Assistance they’re building in a lot more emphasis on improving advisory capacity including these sorts of “Professional Development Days” and it seems like a good idea.

Written by Nick

April 19, 2012 at 1:21 am

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Here, from another blog I quite enjoy, is some info on what happened yesterday, and a pretty good take on it. I particularly agree with the derision about the comparison to the Tet Offensive. That’s probably the most nonsensical comment I’ve ever heard. It was nothing like Tet at all.

Written by Nick

April 16, 2012 at 3:00 am

Just So You Know…

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As you’ve no doubt heard, a series of coordinated attacks struck the Downtown/Wazir Akbar Khan area of Kabul yesterday. It made for a long and “interesting” day for me, but all is well. Insurgents expended a lot of their weaponry, and got themselves killed, accomplishing pretty much nothing.

I think I like US Ambassador Crocker’s statement best: “The Taliban are good at making statements, less good at fighting.”

The important takeaway from our perspective: The ANSF dealt with the the incident almost entirely independently. There were apparently some NATO troops at one location involved in the fighting, but everywhere else, it was Afghans doing the job, according to all the news sources I’ve been looking at. (And that’s all I know!)

Written by Nick

April 16, 2012 at 12:21 am

A Quick, Shameless Plug For A Good Cause

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My small cadre of fans, I have a favour to ask.

When I first joined the army, I lived in Peterborough, Ontario, and was a member of the Hastings & Prince Edward Regiment. The Hasty Ps, especially in Peterborough, were like big family, and over the years, that sense of family was tested and proven many times.

Also from Peterborough was a young boy named James Birrell, who suffered from a horrible brain cancer called neuroblastoma. James, in his very short life, touched a lot of lives. Including the Hasty Ps. It turns out that one of our soldiers rented a room in a house that belonged to James’ aunt (if I remember right), and from hearing the stories, a little inspiration was born. James loved green trains, you see. What looks a little like a green train? A bunch of soldiers on a ruck march. So some of the troops got an idea to do a ruck march through town to keep awareness of the James Fund (the charity created in his name) alive, to encourage physical fitness, to just do something good together.

I did a few of the Green Train Marches before moving on. It disappeared for a couple of years but has since restarted. It actually happened yesterday. I, being Over Here, couldn’t be a part, but I’ve decided to support them a bit, but more importantly, here’s what I’m asking of you.

1. Go to and read a bit about James and his story, and be inspired by how brave kids can be.

2. Go to and make a donation. Any donation. The fund is administered by Toronto’s outstanding Hospital For Sick Children. You get a tax receipt, and research goes on. Everyone feels good.

Seriously, go. Do it. I’ve gotten all sorts of offers from people to send care packages and such things here, but honestly, I don’t need anything. What I’d much rather those people who have that sense of generosity do is something like this.


“Ya can’t let cancer ruin your day.” Well said, kid.

Written by Nick

April 15, 2012 at 12:44 am

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An interesting piece. My experience with employers as a reservist varies wildly, even within organizations. Seems to be driven by a lot of management attitudes among other variables. Seeing more encouragement for employers to see the value of reservists is great.

Written by Nick

April 13, 2012 at 8:06 am

Getting A Look At City Life

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A few days ago, I went with my boss out to visit another training facility, one which is looking to us for advice on how to improve on the quality of training they are delivering in the field we’re experts on. They have been delivering their own training, but are trying to standardize what they’re doing with what is becoming ANSF doctrine. The meeting was relatively quick and simple, with a view that we’re going to review their training package, see how we can improve it, and help them with some instructor development training if needed. The idea, after all, is to build the capacity of the ANA to not only operate, but to also train their own people. We don’t just want to teach them how to do things, or teach them doctrinal concepts. We want them to own those ideas and be able to continue teaching their people. That builds sustainability.

More interesting than the meeting itself was the trip, which gave me a chance to see a lot of Kabul city life. Being somewhat sheltered in a camp limits your ability to really understand what goes on in the country, I do interact with Afghans constantly, and I enjoy getting the chance to learn about their lives, but it’s not the same.

Winding down the roads I got a sense of the hustle and bustle of the city – roads were lined with little shops and kiosks featuring people of all descriptions out to earn a living. A lot of them were tradesmen: carpenters, metalworkers, and so on. There were mechanics shops working on the 150cc motorcycles that are everywhere. Taxis. Shops selling everything from gas canisters for cookstoves to door and window frames, and so on. And people everywhere. What was interesting was seeing lots of kids coming and going from schools. I asked one of the interpreters about that,because the times seemed odd, and he told me that schools are generally run in “shifts” so kids come and go throughout the day to maximize the use of the facilities.

The schools we passed seemed mostly to be girls’ schools – they were all over the place in their sharp blue uniforms and white headscarves. That, I suppose, is a sign of progress, although Kabul is different than the rural areas, probably what you might call more “progressive”. In my view, though, any amount of children going to school and getting whatever education they can is progress. And girls in particular, though one wonders how long they’ll be in school. Still, basic literacy will be a good start for them, rates of literacy here are tragically low.

There were also a lot of markets – large quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables. Even bananas, which I thought would be a rarity, were on display. Bakeries, too. Naan/footbread is a staple food here, so there’s lots of bakeries, displaying loaves of various sizes in windows. The Afghans who work in our camp usually come to work with bags full of it, it’s their main meal during the day. Every now and then our interpreters bring some for us too, which is always a welcome treat. There’s nothing quite like it at home.

What did strike me, though, is the amount of garbage everywhere. In theory, we could probably revive the Afghan economy very quickly simply by paying people to pick up the tremendous amount of litter that’s on the streets and in the gutters. That does actually happen in some places, but not where I was. I don’t know how much there is in terms of municipal services in Kabul though, but perhaps someone entrepreneurial could come up with something. I saw an interesting documentary some months ago about Cairo, Egypt, where a whole economic system emerged to deal with waste management. Now, viewed through western optics, the idea of a class (or ethnic minority as it were) “relegated” to being trash collectors seems awful, but the fact is that this group did alright. They recycled huge amounts of Cairo’s refuse, including using organic waste to feed the pigs they used to support themselves. The system worked until Cairo started contracting out waste management (which residents apparently find doesn’t work as well) and the government culled their pigs during the swine flu paranoia. Incidentally, the Kabul Zoo was at that time home of the only pig in Afghanistan, which was quarantined.

Perhaps there is scope for some sort of system like that to emerge, who knows. It wouldn’t be pig based like the Zabbaleen in Cairo, but something might be possible.

It does make for a good argument for urban planning and sustainable growth, but Kabul doesn’t really have that, because people have streamed into the city over the last few years, and no one even really knows how many people live here. Housing is in short supply and extremely expensive, so what basically amount to shantytowns have emerged everywhere, and disputes over land ownership along with them, because as I understand it what records did exist didn’t survive the civil war.

Housing, thus, will be another challenge that Afghanistan will face. If economic activity continues to be concentrated here, as well, it will likely only get worse as people will migrate in from the rural areas.

Written by Nick

April 11, 2012 at 1:26 pm