KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The joint Canadian-Afghan patrol was supposed to be moving by stealth through the cold, pre-dawn darkness of Panjwaii.
They were hunting Taliban earlier this year, tiptoeing through the winter-wasted fields of hardened grapevines and fledgling poppy plants.
One of the Canadians noticed the Afghan officer in charge of the patrol gathering twigs and scrub, but thought nothing of it until he took a sniff of the air.
“What are you doing?” the soldier asked as the brush erupted into a little campfire.
“I’m cold,” the officer replied.
“Put that out! They can see it!”
The Afghan officer waved his hand reassuringly. “Don’t worry,” he said. “The Taliban are still sleeping.”
Soon, other fires sprang up in one of the many baffling moments Canadian troops in Afghanistan have experienced with their Afghan counterparts, leaving them wondering whether to laugh, cry or bury their faces in their hands.
The Harper government, and by extension the Canadian military, has staked a lot of political capital in training the fledgling Afghan army. It matters both for the legacy of the Kanadahar combat mission and for the newly created three-year classroom instruction assignment in Kabul.
The federal government set the benchmark goal for itself, back in 2008, of having “four of the five (Afghan) battalions and their headquarters fully capable of planning, executing and sustaining near-autonomous operations.” That was largely achieved with Operation Omid Atal (Hope-Hero), which wrapped up Monday.
But nobody said it had to look pretty.
When told of the winter patrol, the officer in charge of a small combat outpost in Panjwaii grimaced.
“They try — the Afghans, they try really hard,” said Capt. Simon Ouellet, 28, who commands “Lucky” 13 Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, Royal 22e Regiment.
“One of the things I’m most proud of from this tour is the ANA. When we started it was just guys with guns. We’ve got them more organized.”
Ouellet’s platoon has lived and patrolled side-by-side with an Afghan unit for almost seven months in one of two training streams known as partnering. It is just the sort of hands-on supervision that NATO’s former Afghanistan commander, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, envisioned as a war-winning strategy.
The second stream of training is known as Operational Mentoring and Liason Training — or OMLT. Those groups take on a broader instruction role, including teaching communications, intelligence, fire support and other critical fighting skills.
According to a recent Asia Foundation study, roughly 86 per cent of the recruits coming into the Afghan army are illiterate. NATO has invested heavily in training, aiming to get soldiers reading and writing at a Grade 3 level.
But illiteracy doesn’t explain all of the quirks and hurdles that often have western soldiers banging their heads against mud walls.
At a small outpost last fall near the major forward base of Ma’sum Ghar, Afghan commanders pleaded with Canadians to keep a light armoured vehicle nearby at night for protection, as well as a backup in case Afghan troops fell asleep.
Western troops heading out on dawn patrol often have to wake up their Afghan charges, who until a couple of years ago wore a mish-mash of uniforms and carried a hodge-podge of weapons.
It is not fair to compare the fledgling army, mostly made up of northern Afghans — or Tajiks — with western soldiers, said Lt.-Col. Michel-Henri St-Louis, the Canadian battle group commander.
“The performance of the ANA is uneven between our two kandaks (battalions),” said St-Louis, referring to the Afghans linked with his Van Doo battle group.
“There are senior officers and NCOs with little glimpses of brillance, who understand counter-insurgency better than any of my officers. Some other times you have leadership and some soldiers who are somewhat tired, who might have (post-traumatic stress disorder) because they’ve been fighting for a while.”
Kandak No. 2 of the Afghan 502 Corps has been on the line in Kandahar province, in one fashion or another, for seven years, while Kandak No. 6 is a recent addition to the battlefield.
“There are some that don’t show the level of motivation we expect of a western-nation soldier, who is here for six months to a year and knows he gets to go back home,” said St-Louis.
“So, it is unfair to us to look at the work of the ANA and expect to be comparing them to our soldiers.”
The Afghan army, as it is currently structured, is largely an infantry force with a smattering of heavy artillery. It only recently started to introduce combat engineers.
It lacks some of the more sophisicated elements of a modern army, including tanks, helicopter transports and jets.