Tactical advice: Mentoring an Afghan partner

A new Canadian team of advisors and support staff are settling down to business as part of the first rotation (ROTO 1) of Operation Attention. Building upon the strengths and accomplishments of Canada’s past efforts in Afghanistan, they are contributing to the goal of preparing Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to assume full responsibility for the security of their nation.

Canada plays a key role in the NATO Training Mission–Afghanistan (NTM-A) and is partnered with 36 other troop-contributing nations who share the goal of enabling accountable, Afghan-led security by the end of 2014.

The Canadian team assumed formal command of the advisory and training mission at Camp Shaheen in Balkh province of Northern Afghanistan in early March. Located immediately southwest of Mazar-e-Sharif, the Afghan National Army (ANA) training camp is home to approximately 6,000 ANA soldiers and a team of some 70 Canadian, U.S. and German military personnel along with a handful of civilian contractors. The team is tasked with advising members of the ANA at the Regional Military Training Centre–North (RMTC-N) and the Regional Military Hospital-N (RMH-N).

Though RMTC-N and RMH-N are located on Camp Shaheen, Canadians operate from a smaller coalition camp within the Afghan facility known as Camp Mike Spann, named after Johnny “Mike” Spann, a member of the CIA’s paramilitary Special Activities Division who was killed during an uprising by Taliban prisoners in 2001 at the Qala-i-Jangi fortress just north of the camp. Spann was the first U.S. combat fatality in the war on terrorism.

Established in 2008, RMTC is a bustling place, with approximately 2,000 students training on any given day. The RMTC conducts the Regional Basic Warrior Training (RBWT) course and a host of specialty courses such as literacy, driving, combat medic and instructional courses, all to ensure continued professionalization of the ANA. The RMTC also conducts two Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) courses: the Team Leader Course, a basic NCO course, and the Infantry NCO Battle Course, a mid-level NCO course.

At RMH-N, the 100-bed hospital serves all ANSF members and their families in northern Afghanistan. Canadian medical staff are integrated with American advisors to form the Medical Training Advisory Group (MTAG) and touch every section of the hospital, from a U.S. colonel health care administrator paired with the brigadier-general hospital commander, to our doctors, nurses, dentists and technicians embedded with frontline patient care and support.

Thirty years of war have taken their toll on Afghanistan’s healthcare system; basics we take for granted are still challenges here, like stable drug and equipment supplies and certified, registered professional training.

While the desire to care and cure may be a universal calling among medical professionals, answering that call takes a different approach here. Sustainability is key – the injuries might be the same as back home, but “Afghan right” solutions sometimes mean thinking out of the North American box: building wooden operating room equipment in the carpentry shop; learning to diagnose without lab tests; creating patient records on paper, the blackout-proof and reliable old-fashioned way.

As MTAG staff work together to accomplish common goals, they offer the most important advice of all: teamwork is key to achieving an effective, sustainable system. With so much work required in every department, it can be hard to make headway. But by working as a team, MTAG is able to model the kind of creativity and cooperation that is essential to delivering effective and sustainable medical care as Afghanistan continues to rebuild.

Cultural adjustment
This is my third tour in Afghanistan and my second as a tactical level advisor. During my first tour in 2003 the ANA was newly formed and very much in its infancy. While its leadership was well intentioned, it was evident to me that they had a great deal of ground to cover to truly develop into a professional force.

The ANA of today is a different force altogether, at least based on what I have observed at RMTC-N in the past few months. RMTC-N benefits from having senior commanders and staff who truly understand the key role they play in the future security of this nation. Their positive attitude and involvement in the day-to-day running of operations is key to the success of this institution.

Unlike my experience in 2003 when officers did literally everything because they did not trust their NCOs, the leadership here values the critical contributions of the NCO Corps, or Bridmal as they are known, and empower them at every level. Key commanders can be sighted with their Bridmal by their side, sharing advice and bouncing ideas off of each other just as one would witness in any modern Western military. As a result, the RMTC is now responsible for all frontline instruction conducted at the school.

Canadians have been rightfully relegated to a second-row role, offering advice only when required in order to put the finer touches on training. Still, there are some ongoing challenges and areas where the ANA could definitely improve, such as effective long-range planning, proper resource stewardship, and adequate staff coordination at various levels.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, is the lack of a functional logistics system. As with any army, if the logistics systems fail to function effectively, operations suffer. It is in these areas where the team of Canadians will focus our efforts to aid the ANA in the coming months.

At every level the leadership here has responded well to Canadian advisors. I attribute our success as mentors to the significant investment we have made in relationship building immediately upon hitting the ground. I stressed to the team during pre-deployment training the importance of gaining Afghan trust, something which is not implicit, but earned. The importance of building the proper rapport with Afghans cannot be understated.

It did not take them long to put that training into practice. Team members have spent countless hours developing sound relationships with their advisees, drinking tea, exchanging stories and gaining an understanding of their counterparts on a personal level. Advisors represent a cross-section of Canadian society and reflect typical Canadian values and beliefs in everything they do. Their professionalism, humour and innate ability to treat their Afghan counterparts with humility and respect sets them apart and enables them to get things done that would otherwise be impossible.

Equally important and intrinsically linked to rapport building is the need to understand Afghan culture, a culture I would argue even the most educated anthropologist would struggle to fully comprehend. So as we go about our daily business of advising ANA members, we are continually learning more and more about Afghan society. Simple phrases in Dari and respecting customary pleasantries and manners has gone a long way.

After three months, most advisors have removed their “Western lenses” and now strive to view things from an Afghan perspective. Making this fundamental leap is critical if we are to succeed. To make any progress with our Afghan counterparts, we must first develop a level of mutual respect and trust, and be willing to step outside of Western cultural norms.

I am very proud of the work carried out by Canadians here. Once again, we have taken a leadership role on the international stage and our soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen are doing our nation proud. From where I sit, I am confident that the work we are doing is important, and I am very optimistic about the future of the ANA.

Lieutenant-Colonel John Andrews is the senior military advisor of RMTC-N and commanding officer of the Canadian contingent at Camp Spann in Northern Afghanistan.

Author: LCol John Andrews from the June/July 2012 issue published

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