KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan will soon call a halt to their pursuit of the Taliban to chase a decidedly different goal as the mission morphs from fighting to helping train Afghanistan’s security forces.
To that end, a vanguard of about three dozen soldiers recently arrived in country, their faces and uniforms still free of the rigours of the blazing sun and dust, their new mission patches still crisp and clean.
“We are really setting the conditions for the future success of Afghanistan at large,” the soldier in charge, Col. Peter Dawe, said this week in an interview from Kabul.
“What we are talking about here is really building a country.”
It’s a tall order for Operation Attention, more formally known as the Canadian Contribution NATO Training Mission Afghanistan.
Starting in July, when Canada’s combat mission ends and American troops begin drawing down, the 150,000 NATO-led forces now in Afghanistan will gradually pass on responsibility for security to Afghan forces.
The first wave of about 100 Canadian trainers is expected to replace American contingents and take over existing facilities at the end of the month.
A staggered deployment going as late as November will distribute some 950 Canadian troops to locations in and around Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Herat in the west.
Of those, about 600 Canadian advisers will directly support more than 2,000 Afghan instructors in an effort to professionalize and equip the Afghans to take charge of security after 2014.
“Everything is contingent on help building these forces,” said Dawe, commander in charge of Canada’s contribution to NATO’s training mission.
“If we don’t do it right, we will fail.”
However, amid a renewed flexing of insurgent muscle, success is far from guaranteed.
About 285,000 Afghan troops and police are currently on the books. The Pentagon hopes to increase that number to 305,000 by October.
However, one in three members of the Afghan National Army resigned or simply walked out last year, NATO numbers show. Many others simply aren’t available when they should be.
If that hemorrhaging continues, it could make it virtually impossible to reach the kind of critical mass needed to make the Afghan army a viable force.
Also, a recent Oxfam report noted an almost complete lack of accountability for Afghan soldiers and police who perpetrate crimes or brutal human-rights abuses.
And while the combat mission will end in July, Canadian soldiers won’t be out of harm’s way. They’re mindful of the dozens of attacks on NATO forces in recent years by men in Afghan uniforms. Insurgent attacks on official installations are common.
Some of the Canadian trainers have several combat missions under their belts, giving them at least an awareness of the dangers and added capability of defending themselves.
“You can’t negate the risk,” Dawe said. “The insurgents will continue to have a vote.”
Canadian soldiers have long played an integral role in the on-the-job training of their Afghan counterparts.
The new mission differs in that the instruction will take place in a formal training environment, said Capt. Glen Parent, a mission spokesman.
Apart from basic combat, leadership and trauma-treatment training, the Canadians will be supporting a growing emphasis on literacy skills in a country where illiteracy is rampant. About 86 per cent of new recruits can neither read nor write.
About 64 hours of literacy training, delivered by 1,800 Afghan teachers across the country, is now mandatory. The aim is to bring recruits at least to a first-grade level.
Dawe said supporting the literacy push will contribute significantly to the long-term success of the country.
“It transcends the force generation of a military capability,” Dawe said.
“We are talking about giving an entire generation a viable alternative.”