“I remember that his first question concerned the centuries-old Buddha statues that were dynamited by the Taliban in March of that year, shortly before our encounter. Two Taliban combatants from Kandahar confidently responded that worshiping anything outside of Islam was unacceptable and that therefore these statues had to be destroyed. My brother looked at them and said, this time in Pashto, ‘There are still many sun-worshippers in this country. Will you also try to get rid of the sun and drop darkness over the Earth?'”
— Northern Alliance Leader Massoud’s brother on a Massoud encounter with the Taliban
With Massoud’s words resonating in my mind, I know why we are still fighting the Taliban here in Afghanistan. This is not a war of religion, but one between distorted beliefs, some theirs, some ours. The main victims before and since the war began are ordinary Afghans and it is their protection that is paramount today.
Surrounded by 1600 Afghan soldiers on the parade square at Kabul Military Training Center (KMTC) during an interview with Aljazeera, fear in the reporter’s eyes at the number and rawness of the recruits enveloping us, I grasp that my experiences during this mission to train the Afghan National Army (ANA) are radically different from my time on operations in southern Afghanistan in 2008, were Afghans were on the periphery of my experience.
I was fixed in a headquarters helping plan and direct coalition operations. There in Kandahar, Canada was directly involved with others in counterinsurgency operations, clearing and holding villages until they were handed over to Afghan security forces and development could begin. Sometimes this involved fighting, which came at a tremendous cost in lives, though not once did we lose a battle. As a colleague recently pointed out, however, and as the Americans learned in Vietnam, you can win all the battles and still lose the war.
This is why the Canadian Forces, having done good work to bring security to Kandahar Province, have shifted course – now that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are much more capable of providing their own security – and are singularly focused on this crucial training mission to help build the rest of the ANA.
Here at KMTC, we are involved in “war winning” rather than battle winning. We are helping build an army at the grass roots level; this is crucial nation building work, and in this we shall not fail. But our effort will not guarantee success in Afghanistan. Others must do their part to help build their national institutions.
Many have wisely stated we can’t kill our way to victory in Afghanistan. Given the extended families in central Asia, we are only creating an exponentially large future generation of insurgents who will hate us. Peace and reconciliation is therefore necessary between the Afghan government and a more moderate, reformed Taliban that will not terrorize the population.
With the recent overtures of peace by both the U.S. and the Taliban, for the first time, I have noticed some expression of hope amongst senior ANA commanders, hope that peace and security will soon arrive in Afghanistan. As Brigadier-General Patyani, the ANA commander of KMTC, recently told me, “there will be no winners unless we make peace.” Everyone is tired of this war. Nonetheless, we should not fool ourselves. This peace will likely come only with compromise and possibly a temporary cost to some of the more liberal progress made in Afghanistan. As such, the insurgents need to be part of a broad based solution supported by the international community.
As well, good multi-ethnic governance with functioning ministries, popular support, and less graft is clearly required. Strategic partnerships that provide enduring international support, not only for the ANA, but for governance, the rule of law, combating corruption and the drug trade, economic and social development, and other elements of Afghan national power, are also an absolute necessity until security has taken hold and the economy begins to produce national income to sustain the country; this may take a decade or more.
A crucial pillar
In the midst of this political ambiguity, Canadian soldiers maintain a particular focus on our military mission, to help the Afghans put the finishing touches on their army. This is an crucial pillar in the campaign to peace. Canadian soldiers at KMTC, the cradle of the ANA, are supporting our Afghan counterparts to build a national army by helping them conduct initial entry soldier, non-commissioned officer and officer training.
Canada is the lead nation at KMTC and our 280 soldiers are working alongside 350 advisors from 18 other nations to help build the ANA. It is a daunting task, particularly given the magnitude of the undertaking. Close to 50,000 soldiers are trained at KMTC in any given year. While the tempo of training should drop as the ANA reaches its full strength later this year, KMTC will remain Afghanistan’s premiere training facility and key to the future sustainment and success of the ANA.
Most remarkable, Afghans are now doing all the training and almost everything else, with Canadians and other coalition forces providing military advice in their shadows. Constrained by time, basic training is only nine weeks for soldiers and 24 weeks for officers. Hampered by the requirement to train large quantities of troops as the army is being built – there are 1400 soldiers on each basic training course and five courses are conducted at once – the soldiers trained here are what we call “Afghan good enough.” They are or will soon be good enough to maintain security against the Taliban insurgency, but not yet good enough for expeditionary operations of their own outside of Afghanistan.
Trying to build an army while it fights is like trying to build a car while driving – not easy. But these are a hardy and ingenious people. I admire their ability to get things done. Trying to build heartfelt relations so we can work together effectively gets under your skin, but in a good way. The relationships you build here are strong. They’re built on trust.
This is not always a high tempo operation for the team. Nonetheless, we ask a lot from our soldiers because they are operating in a gray area between two narratives: first, Afghan culture and its values and morals so different to our own, and second, coalition force expectations and Western values.
With great autonomy, soldiers are faced with moral dilemmas every day, guided by their conscience. But they are driving tremendous change. Recent “atmospherics reporting,” things Afghans talk about in downtown Kabul, mention the strong relation and respect that the ANA at KMTC have for coalition forces, the majority being Canadians. We have young junior leaders advising Afghan senior officers sometimes 20 years their age, and they are being listened to. We have immersed our soldiers in an Eastern culture like no other. Though they see only the tip of the “cultural iceberg,” the way Afghans dress, eat and act in a military setting – and much remains hidden – our soldiers succeed.
The Canadian soldiers here are inquisitive, tolerant, and have made a real effort to learn the local languages. I sense the respect is mutual, but when incidents such as burning of the Quran or the deaths of innocent civilians occur, we are sometimes all painted with the infidel brush. Then it feels like all the effort put into a far-reaching project you’ve worked on for years has vanished. Yet we continue to plod ahead, mission first, even as crowds of angry protesters gather near here, with shots being fired as I write.
We have slightly less concern than other camps because here we are shielded by the ANA camp that surrounds us. Today they protect us from normal Afghans; the irony is normal Afghans are not our enemy, yet after ten years their tolerance towards us wanes due to our repeated errors and the basic fact that we are still here in their country, like guests that have over stayed their welcome. I am afraid we may have become as much a part of the problem as we are part of the solution – our presence needs to be carefully balanced. This is why a relatively quick but responsible completion of this mission, and a transition to a reduced supporting presence and an ANA lead, is strategically so important. And ultimately, only the ANSF can win the peace.
An Afghan face
So how is it going? We are trying to work ourselves out of a job and we’re succeeding. T.E. Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – operating in the deserts of Arabia during the First World War, stated “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the[y] do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.” This truism applies to our work in Afghanistan.
Good days here are when we stand back and see the ANA do positive things without our advice that they were not doing when we arrived. Progress is slow, but no less so than complex coalition operations in Afghanistan, and on this “march of a thousand miles” we are nearing our objectives. With many wrinkles, the ANA is being built well enough, despite myriad difficulties.
There is a continuum of training that starts here at KMTC, but continues with specialty courses, training to form fighting units, and more training once they move into their area of operations and join their corps. In ten years, we together have built an ANA of almost 195,000 strong from nothing. This summer, we begin to transition KMTC completely to BGen Patyani and the 3,000 Afghans that work here. It will be a two-year process, perhaps less, but they are ready to begin.
When I was in the south, we talked about putting an “Afghan face” on operations. Today there is an Afghan face, muscle, and intellect behind almost everything that occurs at KMTC. And once the army is built, training courses should get longer and the volume of soldiers being trained should reduce. The quality of Afghan soldier should improve immeasurably, with some continued international support. The dream of many Afghan generals I have met is that ‘Afghan good enough’ will one day be good enough to serve alongside the coalition somewhere, helping some other nation like we are helping them. They would like nothing better than to join the international community and help someone else. I believe they are simply tired of needing help; they want to stand on their own.
One area where they are still getting significant help is the American sponsored literacy training. Less than 10 percent of soldiers that enroll in the ANA are literate at a grade one level. Imagine not being able to read your pay statement, your weapon’s serial number, or your child a story. With 64 hours of training over their nine week Basic Warrior Training course, however, almost 90 percent of the soldiers are literate to a grade one level. In just over two years, 60 percent of the ANA are literate because of this program, compared to the lost generation of the general Afghan population, beaten down by 32 years of war, where only 24 percent are literate. Now mothers are sending their sons to the ANA, rather than to Madrasas in Pakistan, so they become educated.
We are also working hard to cut all their dependencies on us. When Canada took over from the U.S. at KMTC last June, one of the greatest gifts we brought them was nothing! We have no American dollars and resources, so all they got was us, their advisors. When I first arrived, I dreaded every meeting as there would surely be more requests. Now, when I’m asked for stuff, BGen Patynai cuts off his own staff and leaders in mid-stream and tells them, “don’t ask the coalition, we can do this.” And they do.
We focus on developing people, not providing more things. It is good people that will maintain and operate weapons, vehicles and equipment they have been given, and lead the soldiers they have trained. Nonetheless, we need to thank the Americans for having given the ANA almost everything they need to build an army, for without them, none of this would be possible.
Massoud’s brother’s comments at the outset of this article suggest we are in Afghanistan for the right reasons. We came to Afghanistan as liberators, not conquerors, and after almost 11 years of war, much progress has been made to free and secure Afghans to decide their own future.
I do not know if this peace will be won – I believe it will because the insurgents have been severely degraded and are “on the back foot” – but there are so many strategic variables out of our control. Most importantly, allied nations need to announce loud and clear that Afghanistan will receive enduring fiscal and military support beyond 2014 so the insurgents realize they can’t just wait us out. I do know, however, that we will succeed in our mission to help them build this army. When Canada leaves Afghanistan for good, we will have helped build a peace-winning pillar of national power.
Colonel Mike Minor is commander of the Kabul Military Training Center training advisory group.