Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Birth of Afghan army is British exit strategy
In the mountainous outskirts of the Afghan capital, on a vast exercise area littered with rusting Soviet-era tanks and derelict buildings, British infantry commander Lieutenant Colonel Nick Ilic explains why training the Afghan National Army is crucial to British success in Afghanistan:
“It is absolutely fundamental we get this right. This is our exit strategy. The guys down south in Helmand and elsewhere are holding the line, creating a safe environment for us to train the Afghan National Army (ANA) to the right standard and quality so they can take on the fight when they’re ready.”
British, American and other NATO soldiers are working together to train and mentor thousands of ANA soldiers each month at the flagship Military Training Centre, Kabul (KMTC).
Lt Col Ilic, 41, a father of six from Warminster in Wiltshire is the UK Leadership Training Team’s (LTT’s) Commanding Officer, based at Camp Alamo, near KMTC. He heads up a team of 64 British military personnel charged with overseeing the ANA’s Officer and Senior Non-Commissioned Officer (SNCO) training. The training of junior ANA soldiers is run by US military teams.
In the past ANA training was delivered by coalition forces but now, Lt Col Ilic explains, it is delivered by the ANA themselves:
“My team advises, mentors and trains the ANA instructors who run the training. The aim is for Afghans to lead the training of other Afghans; when required to do so we step in an assist in the training ourselves. The mentors are here to ensure that the training is carried out safely and that standards are kept high.”
“Witnessing the birth of this new Afghan army is a humbling experience. There is no doubting the enthusiasm of the troops. They’re all determined to make a better Afghanistan for themselves and their families. The fact they are joining in their droves illustrates there’s a new found confidence in Afghanistan.”
The ANA trainee soldiers at KMTC are recruited from all over Afghanistan. They pass through an eight week training package of basic infantry and core military skills essential for fighting the Taliban - such as weapon handling, live firing, section attacks and compound clearances – before graduating and deploying to the various Provinces in ethnically mixed teams.
Some deploy to live and fight alongside British soldiers in Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLTs) in Helmand Province’s green zone, where fierce fighting with insurgents takes place. Others deploy to work alongside units like the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh who are partnered with ANA soldiers and over the course of the next three months numbers will grow until an entire Kandak (the equivalent to a British battalion) will live and fight alongside the Welsh soldiers.
The mentoring staff at Alamo are responsible for ensuring the ANA is trained to a strength of 134,000 by the end of October 2010. Initially, the Army will be an infantry centric force able to fight insurgents and hold the ground until the national force reaches full operational capability – with its own logistic and support elements – of 240,000 by 2013.
Lt Col Ilic is under no illusions about the size of the task ahead, but is infectiously optimistic about the prospect of success:
“To reach that target we need to train 5200 soldiers, officers and NCOs every month and we’ve already trained 100,000 – that’s a similar number to the total size of the British Army.”
“At the moment recruiting is high because the harvests are in and people are looking for other employment. The challenge is to maintain that momentum in spring and summer but we’re confident we’ll be able to achieve that.”
Recruitment has undoubtedly been assisted by the doubling of salaries. A Warrior fighting in Helmand (equivalent rank to a British Private soldier) now receives $240 per month - an attractive prospect when over half the Afghan population lives below the poverty line. In a move to prevent corruption, the money is paid into soldiers’ own private bank accounts rather than as cash.
“Managing the training is a huge challenge and resources are probably the biggest challenge. We are bulging at the seams here at KMTC. To cope, we are expanding the training bases so that training Afghans can take place in each of the regional core areas of Gardez, Herat, Kandahar and Maz i Sharif.”
Lt Col Ilic refutes allegations that the quantity of ANA soldiers being trained is trumping quality:
“The training at KMTC is only the first leg in a relay race. After graduating, the soldiers undertake selection and training for specialist roles followed by pre-deployment training and then partnering on the front line by embedded training and mentoring teams.”
“KMTC is therefore the start of a long training cycle that each ANA soldier must undertake to ensure an army of the right quality and size is developed to guarantee the long term stability and future of Afghanistan.”
Literacy is also a key area that the British team are addressing. Every recruit receives a two week literacy course when they join. At each and every stage of training after that, such as the NCO courses, they undertake a further week’s literacy training. This is invaluable as reading and writing are skills for life and the soldiers are very aware of the value this brings them.
The British have been training and mentoring their Afghan counterparts since 2006 and are constantly developing the training programmes to make sure it is efficient and relevant to the current operational environment. Drill, for example, has been reduced to make room for more weapons training.
From June, different specialist schools will begin to be established with the British leading on the delivery of Combat Arms skills such as infantry and artillery training.
“We are not trying to create a British Army - ours has been hundreds of years in the making. What the ANA needs to be able to do is to take on and defeat the Taliban. They can achieve that because they are better trained, better equipped and better motivated with a long term future. In time, quantity and quality will tell.”
Lt Col Ilic has been personally mentoring Colonel Abdul Sabor, the ANA Non-Commissioned Officers’ Academy Commander. Col Sabor says the relationship between the mentors and the ANA is good:
“We have one aim, one enemy. The ANA is improving all the time and after four or five years, with the help of coalition forces, there’ll be no Al Qaida or Taliban in Afghanistan.”
Pictures: Lt Sally Armstrong, RN