Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Transition

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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 As transition happens, that won’t be so easy, because the massive amount of ISAF resources will start being withdrawn.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.

If.

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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