As the two CH-146 Griffons bank over scattered scrub and descend into a clearing, soldiers emerge from the newly constructed concrete block structure that is forward operating base (FOB) Spin Boldak to take up covering positions, a protective perimeter with all eyes and guns levelled on the encroaching tree line little more than 200 metres away.

We may be descending into a game, but everyone is taking this situation seriously.

Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, chief of the Land Staff, steps from the lead helicopter and strides towards the base, which sits a short distance from the Afghan village of Spin Boldak.

Captain James O’Neil, a veteran of the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo preparing for his first tour of Afghanistan, has some discouraging news. A planned tour of the village will have to wait. O’Neil’s troops, despite fatigue from a night spent in the nearby bush hunting for insurgents, have uncovered a large improvised explosive device in the village. The ordnance disposal unit, geared up and working with a robot, is attempting to dismantle it. Earlier that morning, a sniper’s bullet struck a soldier patrolling the edge of the village, a shot to the upper arm that was deemed to be through-and-through, but it’s affecting everyone in the small unit of half a dozen light armoured vehicles (LAVs).

Despite all of his experience in Bosnia and Kosovo, O’Neil is learning the nuances of a different kind of operation – a comprehensive approach that requires protecting his troops, countering insurgent manoeuvres, shielding civilians, building relationships with villager elders, and working with other government and non-government organizations.

“I’ve been doing kinetic operations my entire life,” he admits. “Getting out here and dealing with the locals, contributing to engagements, using my interpreter to voice what I want to say, working with all the different elements – police, Afghan forces, other agencies – I’m not used to that.

“I’m not only doing the combat role, I’m like a father on the ground trying to organize this, deal with that,” he observes.

Seated in a corner of the base, Lieutenant Mike Bain shares a meal with two “Afghan” national police officers as he learns the ropes of being on a POMLET (Police Observer Mentor Liaison Team). “Our job is to mentor them while they do their job,” he explains, but quickly admits that most ANP are played by recently returned soldiers who have worked with Afghan security forces, so he’s really the one being mentored.

For young leaders like O’Neil and Bain, part of this nonkinetic approach to operations means understanding the subtleties of tribal culture. Village elders, for example, quickly lose respect if they believe you are not the person in charge. “That’s a big thing with the leadership in the villages,” O’Neil emphasizes. “As soon as your boss comes out and they meet him, they don’t want to deal with you any more.”

Guiding principles
For LGen Leslie, this trip to the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre (CMTC) at CFB Wainwright, 180 kilometres southeast of Edmonton, is an opportunity to observe Exercise Maple Guardian, and listen to soldiers about their concerns.

But it is also an occasion to stress “new tactics, new approaches” to officers who have had to reacquaint themselves with counter-insurgency (COIN) operations that require the ability to operate among the local populace. “I was concerned we were becoming too FOB-centric,” he says at one point.

Late last year, the Army released a new keystone manual, Counter-Insurgency Operations, a detailed document Leslie helped author. It draws on the lessons learned in Afghanistan as well as COIN operations over the centuries to establish some guiding principles.

Throughout, the doctrine notes that military force alone will not defeat an insurgency. Drawing on “a multi-pronged, multi-agency” approach, though, they can “create the security conditions necessary for the political resolution of conflict.” But that comprehensive approach “requires greater awareness of intelligence, information and the socio-cultural milieu of the area of operation…commanders must come to understand the overall environment, its systems and its overall culture.”

That is no less true of the training. The manual recommends, “at the earliest opportunity, all agencies and civilian and security forces should come together to conduct joint training.” Furthermore, “there must be an emphasis on junior leader training.”

The framework for CMTC was established in 1997 and the centre was stood up in 2001, long before a U.S.-led coalition was contemplating COIN-like operations in Afghanistan. But the goal has always been to provide training that simulates as realistically as possible what soldiers will encounter in theatre. Since April 2006, when the centre was transferred to the Army’s Land Force Doctrine and Training System, the pace and degree of reality has increased dramatically.

Spread out over 620 square kilometres, CMTC offers up an environment that mimics much of what soldiers will find in Kandahar province: primary bases such as Kandahar Air Field (KAF), headquarters for Joint Task Force Afghanistan (JTFA); Camp Nathan Smith, home to the provincial reconstruction team; various FOBs such as Spin Boldak; IED explosions; ambushes; and villages of role-playing civilians, some of whom are supportive of ISAF forces and others with divided loyalties.

Commanders and soldiers in the field have various tools – through the PRT and their own resources – to influence those civilians, says Colonel J.C.G. Juneau, commander of CMTC who served as deputy commander of JTFA in 2007-2008. “I tell them they are not in Wainwright. They need to think they are in Afghanistan.”

With the help of Cubic Field Services Canada, the centre has developed the Weapons Effect Simulation (CWES) project, a system of networked rifles, vests, helmets and vehicles that allows CMTC to determine when a soldier has been hit, and can replicate almost any incident on a battlefield.

“Some are saying [the experience] is so realistic that they don’t know what is going on in Canada,” said Colonel Simon Heatherington, deputy commander of Joint Task Force Afghanistan 03-09, which deployed to Kandahar in September and October under the command of BGen Daniel Menard. In a unique twist, on this day one of his Afghan partners is the actual governor of Kandahar, Tooryali Wesa, who is at CMTC to observe the exercise.

Afghan veterans script many of the scenarios for the month-long Maple Guardian exercises, but increasingly other government departments are also writing them. This rotation of JTFA includes 100 civilians from other departments, the most CMTC has hosted to date. International agencies and NGOs have so far yet to participate, Juneau notes.

Of note, the next rotation of soldiers preparing to deploy beginning in April 2010 will spend seven weeks inside “The Box” at Fort Irwin’s National Training Centre in the Mojave Desert. In January, almost 2000 soldiers and their vehicles from 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade at CFB Petawawa will depart for a training area in the California desert that features villages and FOBs created to resemble those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dari and Pashto-speaking actors role-play Afghan security forces and civilians, veteran soldiers emulate insurgents, and Hollywood special effects add startling reality to training exercises – most of it under the watchful eye of cameras to assist in after action reviews. The realism of the experience has caused some soldiers to suffer battle fatigue.

Doctrine validated
Before departing for FOB Spin Boldak, Leslie received a briefing from the commander at Task Force headquarters at the KAF. As screens mounted to sheets of plywood showed live feeds from Scan Eagle and Heron unmanned aircraft, the commander and his team brought the general up to speed on activity in the region, intelligence gathered, location of platoons “living out of their LAVs,” movement of, and encounters with, insurgents – four in the past 24 hours – and progress on building relationships in some of the villages. Captain O’Neil, in particular, was singled out for making headway with local elders in his area of responsibility.

Back at the FOB, though, O’Neil was still dealing with problems. No sooner had his disposal team done enough to permit the Leslie and his party of civilians to view the village, than a suicide bomber in a small Toyota truck unsuccessfully attempted to drive through a checkpoint blocking the lone road into town.

For O’Neil, it was just another incident in what would be a long day; for Leslie, who that evening would remind troops at Camp Nathan Smith that the new emphasis on Kandahar City means they would be “the tip of the spear,” it was validation of a new counter-insurgency doctrine.