Kabul Military Training Centre
© 2013 FrontLine Defence (Vol 10, No 3)

At the time of writing, I am nearing the end of a year-long, highly satisfying and professionally enriching tour of duty as Commander of the Kabul Military Training Centre Training Advisory Group (KMTC TAG) in Afghanistan. We are here as part of NTM-A (the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan), within the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and the Canadian contribution known as Operation ATTENTION. The aim of this article is to explain what ­happens at KMTC, the TAG’s role within that, the process whereby we are ­tran­sitioning lead to the Afghan National Army (ANA), the successes we have enjoyed, and some of the challenges we face.

First, a bit of background. The KMTC TAG is a multinational team, at its height some 400 strong, consisting of military and civilian advisors from a variety of different countries. The bulk of our team is Canadian and we currently have members from the United Kingdom, Turkey and the United States (the latter provides ex-military contractors as advisors). When I arrived, we also had advisors from Greece, Romania, Jordan, France and Croatia – so we were quite a diverse group.

In terms of Canada’s contribution to Op ATTENTION, the KMTC TAG currently represents the single largest footprint of members of the Canadian Armed Forces serving in Afghanistan. Its role, in line with the NTM-A mission, is to advise and assist our ANA colleagues here so they can assume full lead for operations and training by the end of 2014. And we’re well on our way to getting there.

KMTC is the ANA’s premier training centre, with a focus on individual training. Upon completion of training here, graduates can attend more specialized training (such as communications, artillery, military engineering, and others), and most will undergo nine weeks of collective training, where they are formed into an operational unit ready to deploy to its assigned combat zone in Afghanistan.

The Training Centre is commanded by Brigadier-General Patyani, an experienced armour officer by background, and a former Chief of Staff of the ANA’s 205th Corps in Kandahar. He is very well known to a generation of Canadian soldiers who fought in the south.

In addition to my primary role as BGen Patyani’s advisor, I also lead the team of Coalition advisors who work alongside, or “Shoulder to Shoulder” (the NTM-A motto) with his subordinate commanders and their staffs.

One of the first things one notices at KMTC is the sheer scale of it. The training area is vast and can support the firing of small arms up to live artillery. There are upwards of 8,000 soldiers training at any one time, and the Centre graduates some 40,000 soldiers per year – over half of the regular strength of the Canadian Armed Forces!

Unsurprisingly, given the scale of activities here, KMTC attracts a large number of visitors, including media. In my time here, the Training Advisory Group has hosted Defence Minister Peter MacKay (twice), Chief of the Defence Staff General Tom Lawson, the Minister of Defence of France, the Commander and Deputy Commander of ISAF, the Commander NTM-A, and the U.S. Secretary of Defence, Mr Chuck Hagel. Media have come from as far afield as Canada and the U.S., the UK, Hong Kong, Spain, and Norway. Al Jazeera also came by to do stories about ANA training.

Since my last tour in Afghanistan in 2006, the ANA has made great strides, advances which are clearly evident at KMTC. For example when I arrived last year, we had some 100 Canadian advisors in the Soldier Training Brigade. Now we have five. Five! This might seem like such a small number for such a large task, but it is fully in line with our concept of Transition whereby the ANA increasingly take the lead in the delivery of training, and we remain in the “advise and assist role”, in accordance with our mission. Anyone ­visiting a KMTC rifle range as recently as two years ago would likely have observed Coalition soldiers running all activities and, off to the side, some ANA instructor-in-waiting, watching and learning.

Fast forward to today, and you may not see any advisors at the rifle ranges at all. The training is run completely by the Afghans, with our advisors primarily stepping in to stop and correct an unsafe or illegal act or to prevent a result which would cause irreparable harm to the unit or institution concerned. We also pay close attention to key activities such as End of Cycle Testing for recruits, leader selection, instructor certification and any activities which promote accountability – which I’m happy to note is one of Brigadier-General Patyani’s priorities.

Transition is already underway, with Specialty Skills Brigade and Soldier Training Brigade having been designated as “capable of autonomous operations without routine Coalition oversight” (capability Milestone CM 1A), in March of this year, and we anticipate the bulk of KMTC units will have reached CM 1A by this summer.

The sense I get is that, for the most part, the Afghans are keen to take control of their destinies at KMTC and are willing to demonstrate they can do so. When I first arrived, that was not necessarily the case. I remember getting calls from my counterpart, or his COS, asking for help to resolve an issue related to plumbing, electricity or water (or lack of them in the case of the latter two). Now, I rarely, if ever, get called on such matters, the Afghans having already found a solution themselves. Indeed, for my team, I’ve said that 2013 will be the year of “Tough Love”, and that we’d only step in, in those instances mentioned above. Being an advisor, of course, means exactly that – and as we’ve all learned over here, advice can be taken or not. And building a relationship with one’s counterpart, where they feel amenable to taking your advice, takes time. Indeed, in my case, it was only after being here for about three months that I felt ready to ask Brigadier-General Patyani, “How are we doing together?”

Has he taken all of my advice? Of course not. Like any Commander, he receives advice from a variety of sources, including from his own subordinates – and I can tell you, he does not accept all of theirs either! Indeed, the same can be said of Commanders in any military organization. I have noticed when it came to my advice, it was sometimes not followed because he didn’t think his own chain of command would accept it. However, by raising the issue at opportune times (and timing is everything when it comes to giving advice around here), he was able to more clearly see the benefit – and I would also supplement his request up his chain (which had to come first), with my own request up my chain. In this way we’ve been able to raise two key issues to Ministerial level. I’m quite proud of that.

The pride of accomplishment has surfaced at other times as well, such as when we were required to re-locate our entire team to another camp. The majority of my staff is Canadian, and so the bulk of the planning effort fell on them. The fact that our move was conducted safely, and in a manner which did not affect our work with the Afghans, is a great credit to the fine men and women we have in our ranks. Our Canadians have connected themselves admirably with the Afghans here, whether members of the ANA or the local nationals who work on our camps, or indeed our interpreters. Our current Canadian contingent is made up mostly of soldiers from Québec, and after greeting our Afghan colleagues with “Salaam Alaikum,” it’s heartening to receive a “Bon matin” in response.

The Threat
Being in Afghanistan, one must be ever mindful of the threat, and during our time here we have learned that good force protection is comprised of two elements: first, taking all measures to ensure we are able to anticipate, analyze and mitigate possible threats to our team, and second, developing, demonstrating and maintaining respect for the Afghan and Muslim culture. We are very much guests in Afghanistan, and I have found them to be some of the most hospitable people one could meet – and being a Newfoundlander, that’s saying something! And so, during the Muslim holy month of Ramazan, as it is known here, we refrained from eating or drinking outside during daylight hours, activities forbidden to most Muslims during this period. This was appreciated by not only our ANA counterparts, but also the Muslim members of our own team and the other Afghans who work­ed in our camp.

Another way we strengthened relationships, was by taking the opportunity to have sporting competitions with our ANA comrades (we lost on both occasions!). In short, we’ve found there are many ways to build bridges between our two teams, for the ultimate betterment of the ANA.

One of the relationships I’m most proud of, in fact, is on the information sharing front. If either of us learns of potential threats, we share that information with one another, and this has proven useful on several occasions, as a threat against either one of us is really a threat against both. Thus, though perhaps our biggest challenge here was to create and maintain a secure environment in which the ANA could effectively train and we could assist them, I think we’ve gone a long way to ensuring that this environment will continue to be maintained in future.

Despite our many successes, some other challenges remain. With fewer advisors, our Coalition efforts are increasingly focused on higher-level competencies in planning, logistics and fiscal management. Along with our ANA counterparts, we are working to help ensure that KMTC has a steady influx of combat veterans into its instructor ranks, and that in turn, experienced instructors can take their skills and knowledge to the deployed field units.

We must be mindful that, in partnership with our ANA colleagues, we are helping build an army that is at war. This calls for force generation processes and methods somewhat reminiscent of the challenges Canada herself faced in the world wars of the 20th century. And so, in the ANA, NCOs by and large, are recruited directly from civilian life, based largely on education and literacy levels, and not from experienced soldiers in combat units.

We are trying to promote the role of the ANA NCO and better empower them, and there are signs that in future there may be changes to the way NCOs are selected and trained.

There were many challenges for our team as well, and after a year of leading a team that once consisted of more than 10 nations, I can better understand how General Eisenhower felt in World War 2, leading another coalition, though on a much grander scale.

I’ve learned the importance of flags, for instance, and the emotions which all nations, quite naturally, and quite correctly attach to them. And so, whenever a contingent from one of our teams departed – and contingents could be as small as one or over 20 – each was given a proper send off. And I can tell you, that from my own perspective at least, each flag-lowering was a somewhat emotional event, and I don’t mind saying that I was quite moved on many of these occasions. I also took great pride in awarding mission medals for soldiers from Romania or Jordan, for instance.

Sadly, we would also have to come together, and frankly, far too often, to mourn with other comrades when soldiers from their nations were killed in action. We were all very honoured and pleased when some of our ANA colleagues joined us for Remembrance Day services and even laid a wreath. Sadly, a soldier from KMTC had recently been killed by the enemy while on leave, and so we also took the time to mourn with them on that day.

Afghan Solutions
Lawrence of Arabia, when speaking of building an Arab army to fight the Ottoman Turks in the First Word War, said that “it’s better to let them do it imperfectly than to do it ourselves perfectly”, and these are our watchwords as advisors. At the end of the day, with our advice and assistance, the Afghans must find Afghan solutions to their future challenges. In my estimation, they are increasingly able to do so. Their ability to respond to short notice events in particular, and to leverage the presence of senior ANA visitors (and they inevitably do) to gain the necessary higher approvals for their requests, is quite remarkable.

Canada and her Coalition partners can be justifiably proud of our work here in the “Cradle of the ANA”.

Structure of the KMTC

Canadian soldiers work with their Coalition and ANA counterparts in all of the ­following organizations.

HQ KMTC: includes a Chief of Staff, Deputy Commander Training and Education (responsible for curriculum development and training resource coordination), as well as the full range of staff branches and specialists (medical, legal, Religious and Cultural Affairs, and others).

KMTC Garrison: the commander, a Colonel, reports to Commander KMTC. The Garrison includes the full range of services we’d find on a Canadian Armed Forces base, in addition to a Military Police (MP) battalion, responsible for base security as well as a network of MP outposts in the training area.

Officer Training Brigade: is responsible for basic officer training, as well as the Company Commander Course, the Mujahidin Integration Course, and the future Religious Officer Course.

Female Training Battalion (FTB): Currently, ANA women train separately from the men. FTB runs basic training for female entrants (whether officers, Non-Commissioned Officers or recruits).

NCO Training Brigade: runs basic Non-Commissioned Officer training, as well as advanced training for those NCOs destined to work in deployed Tactical Operations Centres (TOCs) or to serve as the ranking NCO in an operational unit;

Soldier Training Brigade: trains new recruits. Basic recruit training focuses on weapons handling, field craft, communications and first aid. In addition, recruits are given 64 hours of literacy training to bring them up to Grade 1 level, as, on entry, many young recruits are unable to read or write.

Specialty Skills Brigade: delivers training for advanced instructors and drivers, as well as courses in literacy and computers.

Branch Schools: KMTC is also home to the ANA’s Schools of Artillery; Religious and Cultural Affairs; Legal; and the ANA Sergeants-Major Academy.

Colonel Williams is Commander of the Kabul Military Training Centre Training Advisory Group in Afghanistan. He will be returning to Canada sometime in June.
© FrontLine Defence 2013