Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘transition

The Hundredth Post

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According to WordPress, this will be the 100th post I’ve put up here – but that does include the stuff I’ve reposted from other blogs. Nevertheless it’s an idea number having passed a bit of a milestone. Yesterday we held a small ceremony to mark the official transfer of responsibility for our institution to the Afghans. Normally, this is known as “1-Alpha” – or more formally, “Capability Milestone 1A”, the end of a series of milestones determined by what the ANA has gained the ability to do on their own.

However, we can’t officially declare CM1A just yet on a technicality, because the permanent location for the organization isn’t ready yet. They’re occupying a temporary facility while the Afghan National Defence University is being constructed at Qargha, just west of Kabul. So, while their NTM-A advisors are being withdrawn (I will officially be the last one), I’m charged with preparing some “handover notes” I can give to some people who will be in a position to lend support during the interim period, as our ANA friends do still have some logistical challenges of a nature probably too complex to get into here.

Essentially, my job’s almost done in the sense that I’m here for not much longer to make some final connections for our partners, and to do up some nice public affairs stuff about what we’ve accomplished. And to prepare for the trip home.

Fittingly enough that’s underway. I’ve packed up my UAB, which made me try to figure out what I wanted to keep here and what I was okay with sending home – I think I’ve gotten my stock down to the point that I won’t be stuck trying to pack everything into bags that are too small. I’ve started to segregate the stuff I have to return before I leave – or rather, to find the stuff I was issued, but don’t use, and pack it in one place so I’m not scrambling for it. Most of what I sent home was of the same nature – stuff I needed when I got here and it was 20 below zero, for example.

It’s going to be a long few weeks until I leave, I fear – but we’re all working on things to fill the time – professional development stuff, finishing off courses, looking at courses to do, I might even try to do one last shot of PD for the ANA instructors, if I can get interpreters. Ours have all been released back to the company that supplies them to get new jobs.

I’m also planning things for when I get home – doing route planning for a long motorcycle trip that I’m going to try to squeeze in before winter. Basically, heading all the way down to Arizona where my parents spent the winter. They’ll likely have left before I get home, but the plan is to head there, leave my bike there for the winter, stay a few days, and fly home, then get on with the business of returning to work. But I’m still having to research things like the weather – because that obviously will come into play at the early stages. I really want it to be possible, but we’ll see.

Written by Nick

September 4, 2012 at 9:35 am

Back To Work

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My leave is over and I’m back in country. It was an amazing three weeks.

I was a little apprehensive about how things might go meeting up with my wife – and parting ways at the end, but it actually went just fine. After I spend a couple of days in France and Belgium visiting Vimy Ridge, the Menin Gate, and various military historical sites, we met up in Frankfurt and carried on to spend the next two weeks in Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Budapest and Vienna. From Vienna she went back to Canada and I proceeded on to Jordan, seeing the incredible wonder of the world that is Petra, as well as Jerash, Ajloun Castle, the Amman Citadel, Madaba, Mount Nemo, Wadi Mujib, and Wadi Rum. I fittingly spent my last night in a Bedouin camp in the desert, and went out in a jeep to sit on top of a big rocky hill to watch the sun go down and contemplate. Later, after a feast of maqlouba, an awesome Jordanian dish, the generators went off and I saw stars like I’ve never seen them before. I barely slept before we headed back north for a dip in the Dead Sea and a trip to a Turkish bath then back to Afghanistan. I spent a lot more money on the trip than I had planned originally, but I don’t have any regrets – it was probably the most amazing trip I’ve ever taken and will be hard to top.

I arrived early in the morning and was rather disappointed to find out that I was going to be sleeping in a transient tent for a few days before I could get a ride back to my camp. With one uniform and a rucksack full of dirty laundry. To my good fortune, I didn’t get any objection to trying to catch a helicopter flight back, and quickly headed to the air movements office to find out if I could get a Space A flight back. The next morning I dragged my gear to the helipad to learn that my flight was cancelled – but again fortune smiled and it was put on later and I got a seat.

Things have changed a lot here. The staff has been rapidly shrinking, and I came back to find out the seven Canadians who were here when I left on leave, there’s two of us now. And the other one will likely leave next week to be reassigned. So in a few days, it’ll be me and the director, who leaves mid-September. I’m literally the guy turning the lights off at the schoolhouse, when we call transition complete. I might wind up with a replacement after all, another officer who will work with the higher command’s advisory team to act as point of contact for the ANA’s COIN Training Center until they move to their permanent home, the Afghan National Defence University being built at Qargha, just west of Kabul.

I’m now having to start making plans for returning home. In a couple of weeks I have to turn in my UAB (the stuff I’m sending back to Canada in advance) to be shipped home, which means thinning out a lot of stuff, though that will make my room a little more organized than the disaster it currently is – I’ll send home all the cold weather kit I brought with me and don’t need to go back, the suits I bought here, and things like that. I’d like to get my holdings down to just what I actually need for the last stretch and to get going after I get home.

Once that’s done, it will remain to be seen what the flight plans are for going home – which chalk I fly on and so on. I know which one I’m slated for now, but depending on what’s decided about whether I have a replacement, I might actually see that change. And plans change anyhow from time to time, that’s just the nature of the beast.

The real variable I’m trying to wrap my head around though is what happens when I get home. Not just the “when will I actually get home”, because I know I’ll land in Fredericton and head to Gagetown and have things to do there before I get released to go back to Halifax, but what happens then. I’ll have about a month and a half to two months of leave (I haven’t quite figured out the formula yet) where I will still be getting paid by the army, but after that, my contract ends and I revert to being a Class A Reservist, and I will need to make sure that income is flowing in.

This is something of a quandary, though I think it stresses me more than it needs to. My civilian employer granted me a military leave of absence, meaning that I am good to go to return to my “day job” when I get back. The trick is, I don’t want to go back to what I was doing before, not that specific job. I do have the luxury of working for a very large company with all sorts of options, and I’ve started looking at postings to see what grabs my interest, but as of this moment, nothing really has where I live – and I’m not sure I want to move either. Quite a predicament, isn’t it? I guess we’ll see, a lot does change in a few months. They recently posted jobs that were really of interest to me and I’ve been in touch with a few of their recruiters/HR folks to get an idea of what’s coming up.

There’s also a prospect of returning to Germany to teach on another course like the one I did in June, which I’m following up on though that’s only a couple of weeks, and a couple of career courses that might be doable if I play my cards right and follow them directly after the tour. There’s generally an unwritten proscription on such things for Regular Force folks, but in my case, I’m only too happy to knock some of this stuff off while I have the chance.

What I really want to do is go back to school. Without waxing philosophical about it – I shouldn’t have left school when I did. I was sick of being in class at the time and wanted to start making money, so I quit with an undergraduate degree when I should have gone to law school or something. I’m actually looking into the prospect of trying to do school part time. I just need one of those patrons. Or maybe I should write a book about my experience here and the bigger picture from the perspective of someone who’s seen what’s happening. I’d probably sell … well … maybe 100 copies. I don’t think that will do it.

It’s interesting watching things wind down. When I got here and the staff was much bigger, our schedule was pretty full of training events we were attending, of upcoming courses, meetings, writing material for courses, getting translations done. We occupied a large building that we’ve progressively given up parts up to others. My days used to start with planning toward the next training trip I had. Then it was toward going on leave. Now I’m back, and there’s just a few loose ends to tie up and no trips to plan for. In fact, a couple of days ago we went up to a couple of other camps to get some business done – first to Camp Phoenix so that my American colleagues could mail home their excess baggage (they don’t get UAB shipped like us) and then to Camp Eggers for the director to go to some meetings on the future of our organization. I had nothing really to do with any of this, so was a bit surprised when I got told I was going. Because they needed a Truck Commander. That’s how small the staff has gotten – it took all but one of us to have the people we needed for the convoy to go off. I also got to drive (which was funny in a way, my colleague Tim The Battle Bear acted like some combination of my dad when he taught me to drive and a driving examiner critiquing me as I weaved expertly through the insanity of Kabul traffic. It ended just fine though.

So that’s the current situation here. I’m trying to figure out how to fill my next few weeks mostly.

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

Happy Pachino Day

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Today is Pachino Day, the 69th anniversary of the invasion of Sicily. The first Canadian Army unit I joined, as well as The Royal Canadian Regiment I’m deployed with now, were both involved in Operation HUSKY. Without getting into a pedantic history lesson, The D-Day Dodgers as they were known were the first force to really start making inroads into Hitler’s Europe, a year before the D-Day Normandy Landings.

It is customarily celebrated with a feed of spaghetti and the cheapest, most vile Italian red wine that can be found. We had the pasta, no luck on the wine tonight though as usual.

Otherwise there’s not a whole lot of exciting things to write about right now. Relations with our ANA partners have improved greatly, after a tense meeting we’ve gotten back more or less to normal, and they’re getting ready to run their next course which will be the last one we support them directly for – so that’s been most of my workload, making sure they have the stuff they need for the course, arranging facilities and so on, and trying to figure out how to get them prepared to take over everything.

I also spent most of the last week with the dreaded “gastro” –  some awful stomach bug that basically laid me out flat for a few miserable days, but it’s moved along. A couple of us got it after a trip to one of the local restaurants. Unfortunate. But over now, and hopefully that’ll be my only such experience. It happens to pretty much everyone at some point, so I can’t get too worked up over it. Being up all night came in handy when I got some Facebook messages from my former roommate (turned next door neighbour) at 4am who missed his flight back into theatre from leave, having dropped his passport in the airport and being denied borrowing. I managed to make some phone calls to help him sort himself out. Silver linings or something like that. He’s actually the second person who I had to bail out of a jam with their leave – friend of mine from my home unit left town without his visa for his destination, a bunch of calls and text messages finally got someone able to email a scan of it to him, and that was enough to get him on his way.

As I said, not all that much to say, really – life ticks on, there’s plenty of stuff I’d love to bitch and moan about, but this just ain’t the place to do that – and even then, they’re all pretty petty, minor things anyhow. Life’s pretty alright overall.

Written by Nick

July 10, 2012 at 11:29 am

Culminating Points

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The challenge of being on the final rotation through an organization is trying to make sure that you ensure that all the of the mandated milestones are hit, and that what you leave is sustainable, organized, and set for someone to take over. Ideally, every rotation should involve such a process, but in the real world it doesn’t always work that way. So the closing shift gets the job of trying to cover off all of those handover requirements in one shot.

Over the years that our schoolhouse has been in existence, it’s been staffed by a large number of people, all of whom brought their own takes on the subject matter, their teaching styles, and their ideas to the table. When training the coalition was a major part of the effort, the instructors all added to and changed around lesson plans and materials to suit their taste.

What that leaves us with is a tremendous number of PowerPoint slide decks, lessons, multimedia materials, and so on. Thousands of files. And that’s what we’re sorting through, cleaning up, updating, writing speakers notes (as close as I’ll get to doing lesson plans), and so on.

To make transition successful we’re having to work on an archive of products – the best of the lot – a full set of lessons in English, Dari, and Pashtu, as well as all the multimedia that’s useful. We have, to augment that, videos of some of the classes being taught here that are getting Dari and Pashtu voiceovers. All this will stay with the higher levels of the ANSF’s training system, while the Centre of Excellence will have the material they need to teach courses here, and we think that in the regions we’ve made a pretty good effort. What our predecessors did well was create training that was scalable – everything from the video/PowerPoint based lectures that western armies are only too used to, do simple skits that actually very effectively display the basics of the material, that you can use to instruct soldiers in the field without electricity or any other “luxuries”. This stuff works. There’s nothing more amazing I’ve experienced than seeing when students “get” material, and I’ve seen that happen. My first experience watching the ANA COIN instructors training their own (which seems like forever and a day ago…), I saw this – they grasped the concepts being taught, and more importantly, they were able to contextualize them in their own experience, religion, and culture. That means they really were getting it. That’s all we need – to get them all to think about how they conduct themselves, how they interact with the populace, how they represent the government to the people, how they win people’s support.

We know, thus, that we’ve got some good instructors on the ANA side. Several that I’ve accompanied to training events have really impressed me, though often they’re apt to make controversial statements that brew into full-bore heated arguments. That said, while one such argument was going on, my counterpart and I, with our interpreter trying to keep up with everything being said, realized that the argument was actually showing that not only were the students paying attention, but they were set to challenge the instructor. That’s something I was told generally didn’t happen in Afghan culture! That is progress! The following day, as the argument came pretty much at the end of the day’s training, the “belligerents” had a more thoughtful discussion over tea, and all was well.

The emphasis then for us is three-fold. First, we have to work on getting those products for the archive standardized which provides continuity for the place – a repository of “the knowlege”. Second, we need to keep working with our partners on instructor development – both working with them on their rehearsal process for courses, and by encouraging them to send their instructors on to further training. One of the options there is the Master Skills Instructor Course (MSIC, pronounced “missic” – I think that’s what the acronym is, anyhow!), a longer course that actually awards a badge that those who complete it can wear on their uniform, and allegedly some sort of specialist pay. However, we’re trying to understand why they’re not making full use of their access to the course, that might change when one runs closer to their workplace this fall though. The other option is what we call teaching mutuals, where one instructor teaches a class to the other instructors who can then provide a peer critique, while the senior instructor gives a more formal assessment. This is part of their official instructor validation process (and it’s the same process we use for certifying instructors on the CF side), and it works well, though it’s not really happened lately, we plan to reinvigorate it before Ramadan arrives. Third thing is getting the staff side of the schoolhouse worked out – the staff officers they have seem to be pretty smart and willing to work, so if we can use advisors along the chain to help them forge the links they need, then they should have an easier time doing the job.

All these are things we can accomplish.

Written by Nick

July 3, 2012 at 3:02 am

Spem Reduxit

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Hope restored – that’s actually the motto of the Royal New Brunswick Regiment, which I don’t actually have anything to do with, but it seemed a fitting title for today’s post. Things are looking up, actually. After the meeting we had the other day I wrote about, which went all sorts of wrong, we started working with various levels to try to figure out a way forward and to understand what happened and why, and it was productive. Various advisors conferred with various ANA personnel to discuss the situation and it appears to be somewhat resolved. We actually got what one advisor called “the closest thing to an apology you’re likely to get here, the closest he’s ever seen” for the way our meeting went. It turns out that there was some “lost in translation” and cultural disconnects in play. What the General who came was getting at was that in his view there was a long way to go before transition, and he wanted to make sure that we knew that he expected a lot from the ANA staff and from us to help make that happen. Or something like that.

So we’re going to just carry on as before. Mostly. We’ve also embarked on a good project to keep us going for a while, to review all the “final” course material to make sure it is good to go for transition. Part of the frustration that the Canadian team has found is that the Americans don’t do lesson plans like we do. Canadian military lesson plans are very detailed, to the point that theoretically someone who’s not even that well versed in a subject can read the plan over and be in a position to teach the material reasonably well. That, personally, annoys me because it does happen – people are pegged to teach stuff they don’t really know much about – but it’s worse when you get a “lesson plan” that consists of what the material to be taught is, and a PowerPoint slide deck that has some notes. That’s it, that’s all. It’s not something that you can easily pick up and study and be set to teach.

What we’re embarking on is a task to take all the “finalized” lessons and flesh out the speakers notes into much more detail to make it so instructors have a little more to go on. Afghans, we’re told, generally will get a lesson and master it by memorizing the material (including having people read it all to them repeatedly if they’re illiterate, which happens), but won’t always go the extra step to get the depth we’d like. Again, to be fair, we do this too sometimes! The point, however, is to make it so there’s a lot more knowledge built into the material they’re using so that they’ll have more to work with, which I think is good.

That gives me a bit of a renewed sense of purpose, because at times I was getting to wonder how I was going to keep busy with everything that happened last week.

Written by Nick

June 27, 2012 at 5:14 am

Hitting The Wall

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I’ve done my best, through some 85 posts or so, to tell a good story, and an accurate story. I’ve tried not to sound too cynical on days I do, but likewise, not to sound like I’m just churning out some feel-good propaganda either. I’d like to think I’ve kept a pretty good balance – because what matters more than anything else is telling the truth. And it’s not always rosy.

As is clear, and I’ve written about before, we’re not going to be staying here forever. There has to be a transition plan to hand over responsibility both for security and for the operations of the Afghan National Security Forces to the Afghans, and when NTM-A got going, there was a complex set of criteria established to measure their capabilities and establish milestones at which point advisory support could be withdrawn. Those have changed because of a lot of forces (a change in direction on how to do it – starting with sharp drawdowns of coalition advisors first, so that critical fracture points can be seen early and addressed for example), but in concept they’re good.

I’ve seen a lot of good acknowledgements from ISAF (which is why I’ll include them) that some things could have/should have been done better – there was so much early emphasis on churning out ANA triggerpullers (i.e. infantry soldiers who could be posted into kandaks and immediately deployed to restive areas in the south) that developing all the Combat Service Support structures for them was neglected, so the ANSF has a minimally functioning logistics system that is now being addressed. A good argument could be made that in hindsight, we should have built those structures first, and then started churning out combat arms soldiers.

We shifted out mindset from “Afghan Good Enough”, which could sound dismissive to “Afghan Right”, a term which better represents what we want to accomplish. What “Afghan Right” means is something that works for them. The structures, systems, processes that work for western militaries won’t work here (and working in a multinational environment we quickly learn that even amongst out NATO allies, there’s a number of different ways to do things we have had to learn and adapt to), but what we have sought to do is provide some ideas that our ANSF partners can use to develop their own systems. It’s made complicated by cultural issues – both remnants of a Soviet trained and organized military and Afghan culture in general, so we only try to offer ideas and then work to build the linkages they need to make the systems work.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. In the military, what’s called “the 4 shop” looks after logistics/supply issues. There are various letters that go with the numbers to denote all the staff positions, which I explain a little in the glossary. So, let’s make this simple: at the school where I advise, the S4 is the officer who deals with logistics and supply. He’s been having a hard time trying to get parts and maintenance for the vehicles that the ANA own on their Tashkil (basically the Table of Organization & Equipment), because when he sends the requests to the G4 (the next higher headquarters, the branch that “owns” them), they go nowhere. So, we look for where things break down by getting a copy of the paperwork and sent it to the advisors all up the chain to try to figure out where the breakdown is and to fix the linkages.

As we barrel toward our transition (the date of which has changed repeatedly, always getting closer), we’ve shifted from dealing with the training end of the business and more toward making sure that the school is functional. It’s kind of a complex situation now, because they’re sort of orphans – we’ve moved them from a coalition camp to an ANA compound down the road. They’re only there while their more permanent home is constructed as part of the Afghan National Defence University located just west of Kabul in Qargha. For now, it seems, no one really wants to support them.

There’s also some bizarre personal dynamics in play, and I can’t really get into them in any detail, save to say that we sometimes work uphill against people who aren’t so much interested in our mission as in other motivators. It’s because of this I titled the post “Hitting The Wall”.

Since I got back from Germany, I’ve been trying to find a way to get more busy with mentoring, which has become a little easier based on the fact that a few of our team have gone on leave and we’re juggling tasks around. I went to a cordial meeting with the school staff to learn about some of the issues they’ve been having to try and help sort them out, and they went well. The other day, I set off with the Chief of Training, another mentor, and one of our instructors who is also trying to get more involved in mentoring for a meeting to discuss what the ANA have on the go for their training events. When we all worked in the same place they’d give us copies of their schedules, and we would accompany them to some of the training sites to monitor the training and help develop their instructors. Since their move we haven’t gotten as much information on this – mainly because there’s less casual interaction.

So our meeting started off as usually, friendly, casual, and we got some info on some upcoming events, and discussed some more professional development we could run for ANA instructors, based on what we had done when I first arrived, having ANA teach classes to each other and then doing a feedback session afterward to help them learn from each other. All seemed well, until we went to leave and a huge group from their higher headquarters arrived and started asking us about what we’d accomplished, why there was such a small training staff, etc, etc… it was not a comfortable experience and we bailed as fast as we could.

So we’re left basically in a position where we have to pass this on to higher levels of authority to try and sort it out. The instructors we work with – who still have passed to come onto our camp and do so frequently to eat at our DFAC (which, according to a blogger at the New York Times, is the worst dining facility in Kabul, and we agree!) – still are friendly and we want to make sure they’re set for some measure of success, but we’ve gotten to a point where what was a pretty good relationship on the staff side is no longer so cordial. The driver seems to be that they want more “stuff” from us – carpets, furniture, computers, whatever – without realizing that we’ve equipped them with everything we have to give them, and the rest is supposed to come from the ANA supply system, with which we’re happy to help… it’s just gotten that petty.

For now, we’re feeling a little useless while we try to sort this situation out – Ramadan is coming as well when a lot of things will slow down (though I’ll be on leave for a large part of it), and there’s yet again pressure to move our end date to the left despite there being so much more we could do (both here, and with our regional teams which are basically being closed out when Ramadan starts), so the feeling of being unable to accomplish a lot is doubly frustrating with this recent turn of events.

Written by Nick

June 25, 2012 at 2:02 am

Back To Kabul – And Kabul Traffic

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While Helmand was an interesting trip, and it was good to see some different places, meet some different people, and catch up with some of the guys who were up here in Kabul with us before being dispatched out to different parts of Afghanistan, it wasn’t that productive, really. Originally, we were supposed to be bringing down some of our ANA staff to RC(SW) to validate and certify instructors there, but then word came that they couldn’t travel. So we decided we’d go down, observe their training, and basically give them the info they need to validate them. By the time we were getting ready to go, it turned out that training wasn’t even going to be running, so we conducted more of a liaison/close out visit, with a vital secondary function of delivering luggage, which I think I mentioned already.

We did meet some of the ANA staff at their training centre, and got a tour of the facilities, which was good – it was a sort of “professional development” experience to see what is working in that region, which was of value. Part of the “lessons learned” in all this is that what works in one place will not work in another, and we’re coming to realize that decentralization is the key to making things work here, that is a constant challenge with some of the culturally institutionalized structures of the ANSF. Getting leaders to delegate to their subordinates in order to achieve more efficient results can be very, very hard. We are working on it in any way we can though. Whether it will succeed though is not totally clear. I’ve appreciated the candour of some senior people who will readily say that not everything is going perfectly, that priorities weren’t always right, but we learn, we adapt, and we carry on. Overall, I think there’s a foundation for things to work the most part. And that isn’t a “toe the party line” statement, it’s sincerely my impression.

That said, we know that things aren’t perfect. Coming back from the airport yesterday, we saw some ANP who had stopped a vehicle and were, according to our interpreter, most likely shaking the driver down a bit. As we waited to get by, the cop hauled off and punched the driver through the window. And that was the second such event I’d seen just on that ride – the first one was an ANP slugging a guy at a traffic circle, though it looked like they got into some friendly banter afterward, so I don’t really know what to make of it.

That leads me into driving here. I don’t think I’ve been able to convey enough how amazed I am by convoy teams and how well they manage to get around, because Kabul is an absolute nightmare to drive in, in ways that baffle me. Most intersections in the city are set up as traffic circles. Sure, they’re not common in North America (except perhaps in Nova Scotia, where they’re being used increasingly in all new road projects and retrofits), but the concept is simple enough for anyone to grasp. Traffic in the circle moves in one direction. Want to make a left hand turn? Enter the circle going to the right (counterclockwise) like everyone else is supposed to, then exit when you get to the road you want.

Or, in Kabul, just wait until the traffic police (who are pretty close to useless!) directs you to simply turn left as though the traffic circle is just some sort of obstacle. And they wonder, one supposes, why traffic is always such a mess.

They also love going the wrong way on divided roads, which are fairly common here, because it’s too much of a hassle to turn right and proceed to the nearest spot to turn around when you can just simply go the wrong way and everyone will get out of your way. Add to this pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists all going wherever they want, and you start to really wonder how they manage not to have accidents constantly. It boggles the mind. We discussed this while stuck in traffic yesterday though, and one of the drivers had a pretty good hypothesis. Western drivers, he posited, know the rules of the road which are fairly rigid, and when they are deviated from they don’t really know what to do. Their vigilance is reduced by a perception that no one would break the rules. Kabulis, however, understand that there are no rules, and you cannot possibly anticipate what will happen at any point, so driving requires a delicate balance of the aggression necessary to get through traffic to your destination, and vigilance to protect your vehicle.

Makes some sense to me.

Written by Nick

June 21, 2012 at 1:15 am

Looking Ahead

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It’s commonly written that combat tours are hours of boredom and seconds of insense rushes of energy. Working as an advisor isn’t really like that – frankly, we do get bored a lot of the time, because there’s only so much you can accomplish in a day, and while most of us have what one senior officer described as that distinctly Canadian type-A drive to do stuff, to make things happen, to fix problems, we’re forced to try not to do so, because the whole idea is to create conditions where the Afghans have to deal with their own problems rather than us doing everything for them.

In the last few days we’ve gotten some visits from some high-priced help to talk about the high level view of NTM-A’s mission, how things are working out, an the way forward. The whole point of the mission is a transition plan to hand all responsibility for Afghanistan’s security to ANSF, and doing so has three planned phases in terms of reductions: the first one is to pull about 50% of support out, the idea being to stress the systems as much as possible so that we can see how things will work with lots of time left before 2014. Then 30%. Then the final 20% will leave, and the ANSF will have sole responsibility for national security.

The key message to us – and it didn’t surprise me – is to manage our expectations, and to realize that we won’t turn the ANSF into modern, Western-style military and police organizations. It’s simply not a realistic expectation. There are too many problems to overcome to do that – and it simply wouldn’t be a cultural fit. Instead, what we want to do is at least give them some ideas to work with on developing Afghan Right institutions. What we need to do wherever possible is demonstrate good ways to do things and hope that our partners glean some ideas out of seeing our actions.

It’s happening at all levels, which is good – one of the main efforts is to develop the NCO course – I posted before about how integral good NCOs are to western armies, and so even at the highest levels of NTM-A, Generals go to meeting bringing their Sergeants Major, and expect that their ANA counterparts have theirs with them. If they don’t, then the meetings are cancelled. I think that’s absolutely brilliant, because it shows how important the message is about effective command teams – and that’s the way we frame them now – as a team of an officer and an NCO – each has specific responsibilities and roles, but the two together are integral to any team’s success. Showing our partners how that works is important, because they don’t really get the value of NCOs yet.

It was a good opportunity for us to ask questions, voice concerns, and so on. I have to say, I have an almost infinite amount of respect for a senior leader who tells you to say what you mean, and then says “If you’re not man enough (it was an all-male crowd) to ask me tough questions or say what’s on your mind, then frankly, I don’t really care about your point of view, but if it is something I can influence, good or bad, then say it.” And people did. And his answers were frank as well, which was excellent. There were candid statements about how things were done wrong with training the ANSF, how focuses were put in wrong places, and so on, but there’s effort being made to right those wrongs, and that’s productive.

I’m on the front end of one of those transitions. My organization has already seen its manning cut dramatically, and when my tour ends, this organization will be done – completely handed to the ANA to run with. So we’re working to make sure it has the best possible chance of succeeding, which includes decentralizing as much training as possible, training and developing ANA instructors as much as possible, and helping them put in place the structures they’ll need to make things work without us here. We know – I know – that they will abandon a lot of things when we go – that’s been seen in places like Iraq, where a lot of the systems the US military put in place for the new Iraqi Army were discarded as soon as the Americans left in favour of time-tested ways of doing things. The Afghans will do that here too. So all we really can hope to do is give them more tools and ideas to work with.

I will say, candidly, that if we’ve had unrealistic expectations of the end result of developing the ANSF, some of their officers have also had unrealistic expectations. A conversation with Afghan military personnel about stability and the future rarely gets far without a mention of Pakistan. It’s hard at times to avoid the impression that Afghans think of Pakistan as being responsible for all the evil in the world, despite the fact, as my interpreter put it, that “Afghans sold off their country for a few more rupees” and have some responsibility too. There are ANA officers I’ve met who think they should be equipped and trained as an expeditionary force to go to war with Pakistan to resolve the interference. This is of course a ludicrous idea for many reasons. Efficacy aside, since the West is paying the bills, we’re not interested in paying for that. What we want the ANSF to do is be able to defend the country, deal with insurgent threats, and allow the government to exercise sovereign control over the whole of Afghanistan, so that effective governance can take hold, and the country can essentially get back on its feet.

A lot of criticism gets leveled at ISAF for trying to paint the rosiest picture possible of transition progress, and I can’t blame them for doing that. That’s what Public Affairs folks are for – to handle messaging. That said, there’s been a lot of successes in terms of ANSF ability to plan and execute operations and that bodes well for the future. Even when there have been big attacks on Kabul, for example, what they’ve demonstrated is an ability to respond fairly well, with fairly minimal support – and that capability grows constantly. It’s all too easy to criticize what has been done and what capability exists because we haven’t managed to turn Afghanistan into a western-style liberal democracy with a thriving mixed economy. But there’s no reasonable prospect of doing that – there never was.

I think the best summation of realistic expectations runs something like this – paraphrased from a senior officer: “Afghanistan will be a horrible place to live for a very long time.” That’s probably fairly true – but even for that it will get better over time, and that gives us something to work at.

Written by Nick

May 8, 2012 at 9:03 am