Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘organization

Four Feet Of F*** All

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I decided not to use the full word in the title here, I’m not sure why because while I’m pretty good about moderating my idioms (doesn’t that sound smarter?), sometimes the slip out. It’s sort of the nature of the beast, I guess. The title is written on the “current operations” board in our S3 (Operations) shop, I think it’s a naval term as it’s a US Navy guy who put it there. He just started his journey home, as did our S2 (Intelligence)/Movement Operations/Public Affairs/Signals/IT officer, who also in response to a sexist comment by me about sandwiches and her being the only female here, made me an absolutely wonderful sandwich with a nice note. She played along with my sense of humour, and did a fantastic job here on everything. It was particularly cool because she’s a US Navy Surface Warfare Officer, someone who’s normally on a warship, and she volunteered to come here, learned the language, got stuck right into the culture, and lamented on Facebook as she was leaving about leaving a city she has grown to love. She certainly spent a lot of time exploring it on convoys, and her efforts to build relationship with the locals were amazing. She’ll be missed.

That’s the way things are going here, though – the cast is dwindling, and it’s a bit sad as voices your used to hearing in the office gradually go silent. There’s no one new coming, we’re all headed out of here over the next few months.

A few days into Ramazan things are very quiet for the most part. We had a brief period where we couldn’t go down to see our ANA partners so things really slowed down. They did run a very successful course with a substantially larger number of students than normal, though it was a bit hectic for me. When we first got here, we had the tailors make us some “Catherder” morale patches, and I felt like replacing my unit patch with it for a while, to see if anyone noticed, and because it was apt. It took literally the entire staff here to manage getting the students on to camp for lunch and then back off, but it seems my diplomacy skills both with them and with our security people (who are generally a great bunch of people) helped.

Normally the students are from the Kabul area so we didn’t think there’d be much demand for them to stay at the school while they were on course, but a few of them came from further afield – one from Kunduz, one from Mazar-e Sharif, one from Baghlan, and one from Parwan. We had arranged transient accommodation inside our camp for them, but then learned that having an ANA escort for them wasn’t enough – we had to have a coalition person escort them everywhere and monitor them even overnight. So I put my diplomacy skills to work to persuade them to sleep on the ANA side, and with blankets and pillows they eventually agreed to do so. And were actually happier to do it since it meant they could go up the road in the morning to get naan and so on.

I did have to bring them to supper each night, but it was an interesting experience, and my basic Dari (aided by a little dictionary I picked up at Camp Phoenix before I went to Germany) and their rudimentary English went a long way. Generally conversations with Afghans revolve around where you are from, your family, and what you think of Afghanistan. They can conceive of Canada as a country far away somewhere but really that’s all they know. They tend to think it’s some part of America (which I guess, in the sense of North America, is true). They are eager to know where in Afghanistan you’ve been what you think of the place. My universal response is listing off some of the places I’ve gone and I always tell them that I am eager to return some day as a tourist, to actually see the rest of the country – hell, I’d like to just be able to explore more of Kabul, other than through the windows of a vehicle.

They’ll always ask if I’m married, and I learned that the concept of a wedding ring doesn’t make sense to them (in fact, they’ll often ask what the ring is), and of course, how many sons I have. Being married for as long as I have been and not having kids isn’t an acceptable answer particularly, so I’ve learned to a) understate how long I’ve been married and b) dodge the question with one of the great catch-all phrases in Islamic cultures – mashallah. It basically means “God’s will be done” – more specifically, it can mean “because that’s the way it is.” Very useful. Similarly, just about any commitment can be ducked with “inshallah” – “if God wills it”. It’s the best “maybe” ever.

Walking back to the gate one night, one of the students said, “You should come to Kunduz to visit it. You will stay with my family in my home, and I will show you my part of this country.” These offers are common. And they’re actually quite serious. In fact, we were all invited to one of the ANA instructors’ homes for dinner one night. When we said we regrettably weren’t allowed to go, he lamented that it was too bad, but he understood. He then pointed out that the Russians did that all the time and didn’t see why were so cautious. The reality is, most of us would love to accept such hospitality, but we are barred from levels well above us.

I was pretty happy that the course feedback was good, though the ANA wanted us to help them with the practical exercises which we use on coalition courses so they can adapt them. The school director in our last meeting jokingly said “You’re lucky it’s Ramazan and I’m obligated to be well-behaved, because otherwise I might want to fight you” over not running this training previously, which we had talked about. I realized he was clearly joking so I didn’t get wound up over it. I explained that while we were happy to help, they needed to plan the training and we’d help make it happen, so all was well. We did hash out a plan to run some advanced training for their instructors before I go on leave, which started today. Basically, our products are modularized in three levels – Mod 1 and 2 are the basis of all ANSF training, and realistically, almost all coalition/NATO training. Mod 3 is fairly advanced set of classes which the ANSF aren’t ever going to need to teach, however, it seemed that there would be some value in giving them exposure to the concepts so they could improve their depth of knowledge. It’s good to be able to do that to deal with what we call “sharpshooters”, people who ask more difficult, on-the-spot questions requiring more knowledge. We know that the ANSF know the lectures they teach inside-out but rarely go beyond that.

This morning I met them at the gate and brought them in to the office while we set up, and as usual you have to go through the barrage of questions, how are you, how’s your family, how’s your health, how is work, how are your spirits, etc. I say “barrage”, but don’t get the idea that it’s in any way inconvenient or unpleasant. It’s how Afghans are, and it’s part of any meeting. In fact, it’ll probably rub off on me quite a bit, just as the custom of placing my right hand over my heart after saying hello to people is now something of a reflex we do even amongst the coalition folks here. We set up the lecture and I started to teach. Normally, I keep either a coffee cup or a bottle of water close by, but as it’s Ramazan, I decided not to. I was mainly worried about my interpreter, Faisal, because I was making him talk a lot. He was fine however. Halfway though the class, the senior instructor says, “why don’t you have some water?” I replied, “It’s Ramazan, I’m not going to drink in front of you!” They all laughed. “We know you’re not fasting, just us. We won’t be offended.” All I could say was, “Well, I may be an infidel, but I respect the custom and I will not do that. I appreciate your consideration, though.” This elicited more laughter, but aptly tied in to a concept I was in the middle of teaching, about how to get to understand and win the trust and respect of people. It worked brilliantly.

For now, I’m basically counting down the days until I go on leave, as it’ll be very quiet here for the next little while. I’ve got pretty much everything I need – some more camera accessories came the other day and I’ve been playing with them all and learning how to take better pictures. I did find out that I paid way too much for my camera (damn you, AAFES!), but realistically, the better deals I found couldn’t reasonably have been accessible – the vendors don’t ship to APO addresses or to Canada. So I can’t really whinge. I also got a nice huge box from Mountain Equipment Co-op – a backpack, clothes, and shoes – all stuff I’ll need for the trip that I didn’t have with me. I had to get one pair of pants hemmed here, for $4. It wasn’t the best job, but I don’t really care that much I guess.

I’ve also been patronizing the tailor here a bit – I’ve bought a new suit, a couple of sports jackets, and a tuxedo, all for ridiculously good prices, and the quality is pretty excellent. I think I will likely get myself a couple more suits before I go home, but it’s funny seeing how much some people are spending there. I was looking at carpets and jewelry as well. My colleague got himself a triple loop and other jewelers’ tools to evaluate the stones on offer and has decided they’re not worth much though. I do want some lapis lazuli though, it’s beautiful.

I got a massive care package (well, four of them) today from an organization back in Canada which has been awesome to me, it actually came in yesterday but I wasn’t around to collect it. The Canadians across the street saw the contents list and openly mused about simply “forgetting” to tell me about them and just helping themselves, but one of our drivers thwarted them. I did share the spoils though, I have enough junk food to last a while, and some school supplies and trinkets to hand out when we see kids around – which doesn’t happen as much now as it had previously – but we’re looking to find a school to take them, or the local nationals who work here as they all have children.

When I return from leave, there will be very little left to do other than the transition to Afghans – after that, I’ll still have quite a bit of time left here, and I don’t really know what I’ll wind up doing. One of the Canadians here has already been moved to another job, one more is likely to be moved shortly, and our leadership is actively seeking new jobs for us as we work ourselves out of where we are. I have no doubt that something will be found for me to round out my time. I have an idea of when I’m going home too, the first draft of our RIP (relief in place) plan is done, and I don’t think my position will change in it. I do think I’ll be in for a new job though before I leave – hopefully something interesting. I don’t want to have to move camps especially, but these things happen.

For now, I’ll just stay flexible, and see what I can do to help make our transition a success. Boredom is a real enemy, so I’m trying to find ways to fight it – to stay motivated. We’re working on studying for the LSAT as my colleague and I are both musing about going to law school and as such will need to sit the admissions test in December. That’s helping keep the boredom at bay when there aren’t things going on. We’re also working on cleaning up the office, packing up things we don’t need, and that sort of thing.

Written by Nick

July 25, 2012 at 12:01 pm

The Afghans Take The Lead

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I’ve been busier than normal in the last few days. I’m actually quite happy with that, though it’s been a bit hectic, I’ve been pretty close to in the black a couple of times though!

Our ANA partners are currently running their main course, the Counterinsurgency Leaders Course. They run one iteration per month, and normally they have 15 candidates. This month, however, they got around 50! This is making out life a little bit crazy.

We moved the ANA from our camp onto the ANA Garrison a few weeks ago, but they haven’t had access to a DFAC of their own, nor to they have accommodations for students there. Fortunately, most of their students are from the Kabul area so they just go home at night.

Previously, we had duty interpreters with escort privileges who could look after all of the ANA students while they were on our camp, because they can’t go anywhere on their own for security reasons. Now, however, we’ve got a lot fewer interpreters, and only one can handle escort duties. So we’ve got three times the number of students who come onto our camp for lunch, and we’ve had three or four of us trying to control their movements to the DFAC to get lunch, a separate dining room we have for them, and then back off the camp afterward. More complicated, the first day we found that there were a few students from out of town who needed accommodations, we fortunately were able to give them enough supplies to be able to sleep on the ANA camp, sparing us trying to manage an overnight escort duty.

I’m running around trying to balance this and make sure that the Mayor doesn’t get worked up about the crowds. Some of our coalition friends feel the need to complain about the lines for lunch and the ANA being there, but it’s easy enough to tell them to go away. (I use a little firmer terminology) The DFAC is open for three hours for lunch, so I’ve got no sympathy over it being crowded for half an hour. And any other complaints simply require a reminder that training and supporting the ANA is our primary mission here, and so having them around isn’t an inconvenience, it’s why we are here in the first place.

At the end of this course, Ramazan (Ramadan is the Arabic work – Ramazan is the Persian) starts and the ANA will no longer have access passes for the camp – we’re basically finishing off the final handover to them and they will be a standalone organization. We will be here for a while longer to help with some final mentoring pieces, but we are more or less done in the next few weeks.

For the most part, I think it will work out. Their instructor staff are excellent, and they’ve got the ability to get the students here and teach them. There are some things that have to be sorted out – most specifically R&Q – rations and quarters – how the students are housed and fed, because this course is the last one that our camp facilities will be available, but that will be what we’ll try to help sort out over the next few weeks.

Ramazan will be an interesting time around here. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it basically is a month of fasting – Muslims fast totally between sunrise and sunset. No food, no water. How they do so in a desert environment is beyond me. They’ll wake up super early, have a huge breakfast and go to morning prayers, and then after evening prayers have a massive feast called iftar to break the fast. Still, even with the reduced working hours I can’t imagine how they manage to do it. I’m curious to try it for a day, we’ll see. I’m still trying to recover from being sick for a few days, which means I’m not optimally hydrated. We’ll see. No sooner than I got over the bug, a couple others at the office are now hit with it – just wonderful, I must say.

Written by Nick

July 17, 2012 at 7:12 am

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.

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

No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy…

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Today we got a crash course in Counterinsurgency (COIN). COIN is the nature of the kind of operation that is ongoing in Afghanistan, and based on history, it’s something that the Canadian Army will have to get better at over the next few years to be prepared for future operations. The reality is that since the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, three quarters of military conflicts have been insurgencies or other low intensity conflicts. The massive global conflagrations that are what first spring to mind when one thinks of war are indeed very rare.

COIN is something that no one has really done well, in no small part, I think, because it’s hard for a conventional military to wrap its collective minds around how to deal with insurgencies. The British were probably the first to start understanding COIN during the Malaya Emergency, and it’s from that in part that we got the idea of “Hearts & Minds”.

Problem #1 is that a lot of people don’t understand, even at a fundamental level what it means.

“When you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow…”

Well, there’s no easy way to get the balls of an insurgency that blends seamlessly into the population. There’s no battle front, there’s no Fulda Gap to stare across at your “most probable military opponent” (which is one term that the Soviet Army apparently used for Americans when teaching officers about tactics), there’s no way to actually accomplish this. And of course, it’s totally not the idea, but I’ll get back to that.

“Remember, hearts and minds, boys. Two in the chest, one in the head, that’s hearts and minds.”

Yep. I heard that on a close quarter combat range once. I can’t gloss over what we do, remember. We are trained in the art of using deadly force. We are trained to kill people. I’m in the infantry. That is our job. The Role Of The Infantry, which is taught to us and we’re constant reminded of throughout training, is bluntly this: “To close with and destroy the enemy, by day or by night, regardless of season, terrain or weather.” There’s no glossing over it. But remember that thing from ethics? I have no problem telling my mom what I do in the army. In addition to that blunt description, of course, we have the ability to harness our organizational and leadership skills to do all sorts of things. But our training necessarily revolves around that role.

So what’s the phrase actually mean? Well, the important thing in a counterinsurgency campaign is to understand how insurgencies work, what the prerequisites are, and how to counter them. Insurgencies happen because the insurgent organization is able to exploit a vacuum. When governments fail to address the needs or wants of a society, an insurgency can emerge. The Taliban, for example, rose to power by helping resolve what amounted to legal disputes, and providing law and order, which didn’t exist in most of the country. Rising in the Pashtun southern part of the country, they harnessed both religion and tribal customs and were able to become strong enough to take over the whole country. When they were routed in 2001, they resumed a highly effective insurgency.

It’s worth noting that they not only exploit the vacuum, they  essentially help create it by destabilizing the areas they still can influence. There’s a lot more complex forms of insurgency that can develop too, but I’ll be writing a university paper if I try to get into them all, and well, if I’m going to do that, I’ll write a book and sell it. Or something.

Thus, the idea of winning hearts and minds doesn’t mean winning a popularity contest. It means convincing the local national population that the Host Nation government can meet their needs. It doesn’t even need to meet them now – it just needs to gain the trust of the populace that it will be able to in the future. It means understanding the root causes beyond the surface grievances, getting to understand them, and empowering the Host Nation to address them. Winning hearts and minds means that we set conditions for both an emotional and logical conclusion that the Host Nation can address those problems. It’s not a simple matter of dumping some foreign aid on them, or fighting off insurgents when they attack. It’s about cutting the insurgency off from their base of support, making it such that the local population no longer needs or supports them, and no longer wants anything to do with them. That isolation ends their relevance.

What you’re probably coming to understand is that the military cannot do it all, but we’re definitely a significant part of the problem.

Modern COIN doctrine gives us four stages: Shape, Clear, Hold, Build. We’re basically embarking on the “Build” stage, to create the capabilities within the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) and the Afghan National Security Forces to operate effectively, to provide a state that meets the needs and wants of its people. That will cut the Taliban off from its support (mostly, there’s foreign interference of course, and that’s a whole other problem), and render them increasingly irrelevant. With that, hopefully, a generation of Afghan kids will grow up not knowing war, get educated, and be able to provide for themselves and their family without turning to fighting. That’s the goal at the highest level. If that doesn’t sell you on why I’m going, well, probably nothing will. I absolutely can proudly tell my mom that that’s what I’m doing for the next year or so.

The guidance we have seems almost comically simple. Drink lots of chai (Afghan tea, which is served over conversation). Treat every soldier as a sensor gathering information on the environment and the variety of factors that contribute to the nature and persistence of insurgency. And the one I love: get out of your vehicles, take off your sunglasses – sit and look counterparts in the eye and have a good discussion, find out what will work to move forward. Oakleys are a barrier to building the trust that Afghans want with us, according to the Big Boss. Makes sense to me, actually. It really does. We need to build lasting relationships so that the people we advise see a value in working with us.

COIN requires a willingness to keep up the “clear” task. A well-executed COIN campaign, which is what ISAF is working to set up, will be able to reintegrate most of the insurgents into society, to get them to see the value of working with rather than against the Host Nation government, in this case GIRoA. Some, however, will be incorrigible. They will never be able to let go, and so, we – or more specifically, the ANSF must be prepared to go out and kill them. It’s that simple. The goal is to get them to think like we do – that we can either be a solid partner, comrade, friend – or will spare no effort to root you out. We’ve got a lot to learn still, and I think COIN will be an ongoing Professional Development study topic while we’re away. But we’re getting the idea, and learning how to present ourselves to the challenge.

I am a Canadian soldier. In me you will know no better friend, and no worse enemy. That was one of the quips in the presentation we had today, and it sort of resonated.

Back In The Swing

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It’s been a busy week thus far – a little chaotic in some cases, because basically everyone getting ready to deploy has different stuff to do – different checks to get in their boxes. It’s been fairly well organized, actually, other than a number of last minute changes to some of the plans that were published initially.

I had a good mix of stuff booked to get done this week – convoy ranges to start off, some interesting training on TTPs for road movements that are going to be a large part of what we’re going to be doing. It wasn’t anything particularly new I learned, but it was good to review and get the latest information on how things will work over there. We did some other training specific to the mission as well. Last night we went into the night doing foreign weapons training (where I got annoyed that I know more about most of them than the “instructors”, including the difference between an RPD and RPK machine gun for example. In any case, foreign weapons training is basically a quick review of how to clear weapons you might likely find over there – Kalashnikov-type weapons being the most common.

Today I started Standard First Aid – something that we’re supposed to do constantly to stay current, but I’ve actually not done the full course in quite a while, so it’s good to get back to review CPR and those sorts of things. That will lead into this weekend, when I’m doing Combat First Aid – which is more specific to the sorts of injuries you might see in a war zone. It’s not as detailed as the Tactical Combat Casualty Care (TCCC) course, a ten day intensive course that 25% of the task force should have before we deploy. I wanted to get on that course, but I wasn’t one of the people chosen for it. Instead I’m doing the Unit Ethics Coordinator course next week. That should also be quite interesting, and I’m sure it will generate a lot of good discussion. With several recent stories in the media, we’ll certainly not be short of things to talk about.

I know my departure date now, which is cool. It gives me some ability to organize my life a bit. I was worried I’d be sitting around waiting for weeks to get on the go, and I’ve discovered that for better or worse that’s actually not really good for anyone – it’s just better to get on with things. Being in touch with the people we’re replacing and seeing how things are going there is actually getting us kind of excited about getting on with the job. Also, the chaotic feeling we’re getting as all the last minute stuff gets done is starting to become overwhelming. It’s just time to get done with being here, and get on the way.

Written by Nick

January 19, 2012 at 10:49 pm

And we’re just about done…

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Today started off with the chaos that is almost the norm here, the cynical side of me notes. I headed down to the Base Theatre this morning, arriving in excellent time to stand in the longest Tim Hortons line I’ve ever seen, albeit the fastest, to get a much needed extra large black. I began to settle in for some lectures collectively called ETHAR – which I think stands for Explosive Threat Hazards And Recognition. We used to call it Mine Awareness Training, but the spectrum of things that go boom in theatres like Afghanistan are much more broad than just good old-fashioned landmines (which, rest assured, are abundant there). After we sat around for a little while, we learned that the training had been moved to the LAV Barn, and so we figured out carpools to get there. Except it wasn’t actually there either, it was in a smaller vehicle hangar nearby. We did make it there.

ETHAR training is actually relatively interesting when taught by engineers with a lot of hands on experience, as our instructor had. He was a C-IED (counter-IED) specialist and EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) technician. He had a lot of stories to tell to add to the PowerPoint that we’ve all seen numerous times. It’s good to make sure we get the refreshers on the drills though, because they are important. All sorts of things that go boom exist in Afghanistan, and it’s good to stay current on how to avoid them, obviously.

At lunch I had to break from that to go deal with my UAB, which took a while to get done. Our boxes were inspected, tagged, weighed, and loaded into sea containers to start the journey to Afghanistan. Apparently, they’ll go by sea to Europe somewhere and then be flown into Kabul. We’ll see them at some point, but no one can guarantee when, meaning of course nothing that’s in there can be anything you can’t live without. I was amused to realize that one of my MOBs was slightly overweight (they didn’t worry much about it). It contains the coffee maker, coffee, and some other consumables. Declaring a coffee maker non-essential was tough, but had to be done.

Last minute running around capped the day, and tomorrow I have to finish the last thing, my passport application. It turns out the forms I had today were the wrong ones, and I had to find a guarantor for my pictures and so on, which I got done this evening. In the afternoon we get briefed on our Rules of Engagement for the tour, and then a final dismissal parade at 4pm. My ride to Halifax wants to load the car during lunchtime, and wants to be out the door not later than 4:30, as bad weather’s expected and he wants to get home before it. Fair enough!

This evening I took a look at some MilBlogs out there – official and unofficial ones, and it’s given me some ideas about how I’m going to overhaul the blog over the next few weeks (in theory!). I’m going to start using WordPress’ categories function to sort all the posts by stages of the process, and, amusingly drawn from one blog, by the attitude of the post – the good, the bad, the funny, the cynical, and so on. That’ll make things better for reading. I’m also going to try to learn about formatting and build something more interesting. Lastly, I do want to start trying to incorporate more pictures into the blog, as I’m trying to take as many as I can. It’s just a matter of making the effort to add them, instead of playing World Of Tanks or whatever else I distract myself with instead.

Things will be quiet over the holidays, because I’m planning to take a week down south next week if I can get my leave in order and find a good last minute deal, and I’ll be headed to Arizona in the new year to visit my parents for a few days. I won’t have much to say about tour plans during that time, so don’t worry, I’m not abandoning this just yet.

Over The First Hurdle

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My first big job in my position as S1/Adjutant for my camp is to sort out the HLTA plan the leave schedule for the folks coming to the same camp as I am. It’s going to be a job to manage the plan as it looks like people will be shifting around a lot over the next year as ISAF shrinks dramatically in size. The US military is taking about 1/3 of its deployed forces out of Afghanistan, and several other countries are winding up their contributions. Deutsche Welle World Service reported that the German military will hand over their AO, centered around Feyzabad in northwestern Afghanistan, to the ANSF by the end of this year, for example. That is the idea, though – to work ourselves out of our jobs.

In the case of my camp, it’s converting from a regular military training centre to a literacy school, and NTM-A will likely decide that a presence there is not as necessary and we’ll be moving. So far, it sounds like we’ll be moving to Camp Julien, which was actually the original Canadian base in the Kabul area, but no one is really sure about that. We might also break up our current unit.

You can probably anticipate the problems that this will generate for managing leave plans, particularly for people I wind up no longer working with.

Today, however, I got the first draft of the plan done. I solicited everyone’s top three choices of dates (which are allocated in blocks based on logistics plans to get people out of the country), and started filling them in. I think I managed to get a good chunk of people the blocks they wanted, fortunately, and all of the people who have critical dates to hit in Canada I’ve managed to accommodate as well – we have a soldier who’s wife is pregnant and due to give birth while we’re away. An officer whose daughter will graduate from university. A soldier with a sister getting married. These sorts of things we do our best to fit in, and we’re set to manage that.

Of course, not everyone will be happy, and even though many junior soldiers chose mid tour blocks as their preferences, someone’s going to be leaving in the first block, within a couple of months of arriving, starting into an eight month tour. That’s life, though. I think I’ve got it reasonable well distributed. In my case, I chose the last block initially, but bumped it forward by one to give a Private his first choice. I would rather work though most of the tour and have less to come back to at the end. Just seems to make more sense that way.

Other than that, today was pretty slow. We were out to Wellington Range to “spectate” while a small number of people got to fire M72 rockets. The M72 is a 66mm single shot rocket which is effective against soft-skinned vehicles, light armour, simple bunkers, and so on. I laugh because since I joined the CF I’ve heard repeatedly about how it’s obsolete (it’s a modernization, basically, of the WW2 “bazooka”, and dates from the Vietnam area, though today’s NM72E5C1 model is much more advanced) and will be phased out of the system. For eleven years I’ve heard this, but apparently people found them useful in Afghanistan.

For workup, only 48 rockets were available, so only about 1 in 10 of the augmentees were able to actually fire, the rest of us just went to the range. What a day to forget my camera. That said, I didn’t get much of a view, but video might have worked well. It was a quick process, though for some reason we went with rifles again, drawing some funny looks.

We managed to get one rocket allocated for our camp, so I made sure it went to our medic, who likely wouldn’t get another change to shoot an M72. She was giddy for lack of a better term. May as well enjoy it.

Tomorrow, I will feel somewhat smug that all the stuff I had to get done before my next conference, and I’ll head off to do jungle lanes, which if the weather is good should be a bit of fun.

Written by Nick

November 29, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Over the halfway point for Block 1.

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Had a nice weekend at home, a little cocktail party last night and an overall pretty relaxing couple of days. In fact, last week in general wasn’t bad at all, even with the nonsense of training being unexpectedly rearranged. We’ve been lucking out with weather in particular. Friday morning was an early one to do our BFT. Rather than a boring route on base, we followed a rail trail which was snow-covered, just tamped down by ATV tracks. Made for a little bit of a harder go than normal, but nothing insurmountable. In fact, the snow made us use a bunch of different muscle groups, which was probably a good little workout. I trailed a bit behind the pack as I got into a conversation with one of the NCOs – but I ran a bit to close up in the end. I was in in 2:14 which was a little longer than an ideal time but well within the standards.

Getting done nice and early afforded me enough time to go get a nap in before the Task Force BBQ in the afternoon. I also sat in on the J4 Conference, which gave me a little insight into how the logistics end of the tour is unfolding. I’m the kind of person who gets a little obsessed with knowing as much as possible even outside of what I need to worry about. It was kind of pointless for me to be there, but the last one apparently covered some things I should have known about, so I went. I do feel good about the fact that we seem to be well ahead of where we need to be to get things done. I’ve started on the leave plan, and next up will be performance management stuff we should be able to get going on pretty quickly this week.

This week I’m hoping for more good weather, as we’re spending most of it on ranges – starting with pistol ranges tomorrow, jungle lanes, M72 though we just get to watch, only 48 rockets are available for the whole organization, so not many people get to actually shoot them. Mind you, I’m combat arms, so I might be one of the people who gets to shoot a live one. Who knows…?  Some more briefings and possibly the cancelled first aid training will happen this week as well I think. Not really clear yet.

This weekend, I’ve got to get all my UAB straightened out – going to hit Costco and fill up my MOBs with some more snivel kit stuff, and next week it gets sent out, and I have no idea how long it’ll be before I see it again! I’m going to be leaving here after the following week, so I’m going to try to get everything organized so that I’m basically able to live out of what’s coming back with me in January, and all of that will be what I take over to Afghanistan.

The other piece of the puzzle I’m contemplating is HLTA travel plans – where we’re going to go, we’ve discussed a few ideas, and if I can can firm some of those ideas up I’m going to have an easier time picking my leave block. I found an awesome GAP Adventures 17 day Trans-Mongolian Railroad tour which sounds incredible, but I don’t think that’s as appealing to the wife. Another time perhaps then. However, I don’t want to do something that’s easy to do another time – we get a fairly good-sized allowance for HLTA and I want to use every penny of it if I can, head to somewhere a little different/out of the ordinary. The tour aspect holds some appeal because then I won’t have as much planning to deal with, and in some cases, I can use HLTA money for more things. Cruises work the same way, but they’re really not that interesting to me, so I don’t know.

Let’s see how the week shapes up…

Written by Nick

November 27, 2011 at 10:52 pm

Racing Through Week 3

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I can’t believe how quick this week is going, I actually thought today that it was Tuesday for most of the day until I realized it was Wednesday. It’s been productive, or at least it was until today. I’ve got all my desert kit, and also got my new SORD rig, which is now set up, at least for the first iteration. I’ve got to actually trial it on the range to see how it works out. I’ve got not much left to do, and I’ve actually been able to start doing the job I’m supposed to be doing. First up is the HLTA plan, I’ve got the blocks now and I’m starting to gather the preferences from my team so I can compile the plan and get it done. I’m thinking I’m going to push my leave as late as possible within reason so I’m coming back to a short stay.

Today the augmentees were supposed to start combat first aid, but when we showed up after PT (which was a 6km run broken up with pushups, squats, and burpees) they told us that if we didn’t have Standard First Aid done in Gagetown we weren’t supposed to be there. That’s two days of full schedules gone, and now the complexity of trying to fit that course in elsewhere. The ops folks weren’t too impressed with the development. I did, however, manage to make something of the day. I started the leave plan, worked on a presentation I’ll be delivering to our team about Afghanistan’s history and the history of NTM-A and ISAF, and got a lot of professional development readings done.

One of them was http://usacac.army.mil/CAC2/MilitaryReview/Archives/English/MilitaryReview_20110228_art014.pdf –  Multiplying By Zero, a rather pessimistic view of the prospects for NTM-A, based on the cultural differences that exist, and a tendency to set the bar too high in terms of expectations. It’s a good if slightly grim read, and sadly, it seems to jive with some of the information we have gotten from the group we’re going to be relieving on arrival. It couples with a lot of information that’s emerging, really, and this particular article explains in great detail a lot of things I’ve observed in my own research about Afghanistan. I worry we’re undertaking a Sisyphean task, but it does seem that we have to try, we can’t just give up.

Today was the onset of winter in New Brunswick, as well – and the trudging over to the BARFF for dinner sucked, but at least it was a pretty good meal, and a chance to chat with my clerk about his progress on organizing all of our DAG documentation so that by the time we take off for Christmas leave we’ll be done everything hopefully. There was something bizarre about slogging through the snow in my desert boots – you can tell all of the people here on workup because we’re sporting any number of different types of tan boots as opposed to the conventional black boots we normally wear. We’ll stand out more in January. To save on managing so much kit, we’ve been told to leave our green CADPAT at home and show up for work in arid pattern.

So, I have no idea what tomorrow will bring, I’m not sure what I’ll do for PT as it’s not going to be company PT, and we don’t have anything on the schedule yet. More language training if I can, I guess. We’re apparently getting an early dismissal to let people go over to the mess to watch football (and presumably spend money). Friday morning it’s up early for our “teambuilding” BFT that is just being done as a challenge since like most people here I have the “check in the box” already, and don’t need to actually do the test. It’ll just be a good 13km walk mostly, but the arrival of large quantities of snow might have ruined our route. We’ll see I guess. Then a BBQ. Then back home. This weekend I’ve got a party at home, and I’ll be out shopping for luggage for my HLTA so I can pack my MOBs up and they’ll be set to ship. They’re going to be going over mostly empty it seems! Without the Keurig machine, actually, one would likely be empty entirely. I’m sure I’ll find things to fill it with when I am heading back, though.

Written by Nick

November 23, 2011 at 10:49 pm