Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘if it bleeds it leads

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.