Afghans doing it for themselves

Major Mark Suddaby, a company commander with the 1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (1 SCOTS) writes about backing up the Afghans.

It has been a hectic month.  I guess I could say that about each one since March, but July really does feel like I stepped onto a merry-go-round. But it has been a good month too: one with almost tangible successes.

When Advizer 10 arrived in Nad-e’Ali, the 1st Kandak of the Afghan National Army (ANA) seemed tired of four years spent in one of the most dangerous provinces in Afghanistan.  Tired of trying to keep up with ISAF as we charge about for our six month tours, attempting to nail that elusive ‘decisive’ effect.  Six months may seem like a small lifetime to us, but for the Afghans it’s just another change of ISAF: the eighth for this Kandak.   So when we arrived it was obvious that this Kandak had plateaued and lost some of their grit.  But as the fighting season began to bite and ISAF found themselves heavily committed to holding ground already taken back from the insurgents, the need for the ANA to step up became a critical requirement.  With basic equipment and little more than the most basic training, the Kandak has had to rely on gaining experience ‘on the job’.  Some of the Warriors have been fighting in Helmand for four years, others for 4 weeks, so the disparity of skill and experience can be stark.

Our remit, of course, is the long term institutional development of the ANA and this is something that we have been chipping away at for all these months.  What does that involve?  Well, my Advisor teams embedded at a Tolay, or Company, level train the ANA in first aid, mine clearance, marksmanship principles and map reading.  They mentor their ANA commanders in leadership, command and administration.  And they do all this in the austere and cramped patrol bases and during operations on the ground, where it is their example which often inspires the ANA to become more professional, more like ISAF.  This approach does not come without its own difficulties and frustrations, however.  But it is about perseverance and quiet determination.  It is about understanding and accepting the daily frictions and not allowing them to throw you off track.  It is about understanding that often the ANA themselves will not know what skills they require for a campaign of this complexity.

So advising and mentoring the 1st Kandak of the ANA, is not without its own challenges and frustrations, to the point where often it becomes difficult to see the progress that we are making, as our noses are pressed against the coal face of transforming an Army in contact.

But last week that all seemed to change.

At the beginning of July I decided to see about getting the Kandak to organise, plan and conduct their own ANA-led operation.  I picked an area that we knew very little about and set about convincing the 1st Kandak commander that not only would this be an ideal opportunity to develop the Kandak as a whole, but it would also achieve a tactical effect by clearing and dominating an area of Nad-e’Ali that ISAF had been unable to get to.

At first it was a little tortuous, it must be said.  The Kandak staff argued over the mission statement for hours and then insisted upon taking ever longer breaks to pray.  But again, by applying the principle of just sticking at it and not letting the ANA break us, they began to engage.  Soon enough they became genuinely enthusiastic about the operation and the concept of them leading, with ISAF in support, which didn’t faze them as much as I thought that it would.

Within two frenzied but short weeks 1st Kandak headquarters had come up with a workable and tactically sound plan for the operation, including the fine detail such as battlespace management and logistic resupply.  They had written the orders and given a detailed brief to both ANA and ISAF commanders.

Last week the operation – Operation TOR DIDAR AWAL (Black First Look) – launched from an ISAF patrol base on the edge of the desert, in two waves of Chinook helicopters, which inserted one hundred and fifty ANA and ISAF Warriors into the dust of a shallow and defendable bowl, in a matter of minutes.  For the ensuing two days the Tolays of 1st Kandak cleared compounds, dominated the ground, reassured the local population of this disenfranchised desert community and held shuras with the village elders.  They looked the business and really stepped up to the mark of leading; with their Advisors only advising.  It was an astonishing sight as the ANA lead the three main bodies away from the landing site, as the weak orange sunlight broke over the crest of patchwork compounds and illuminated the target area that rolled gently away from us towards the main canal, two kilometres to our south.

So, what can I draw from this?  That the ANA can do it and do get it, if only they are given the freedom to prove it?  I think so, yes.  I worry that perhaps we are spending too much of our time trying to pair the ANA off with ISAF counterparts, when perhaps we should just be letting them crack on a little more.  We need to keep a weather eye on development, for sure, but perhaps, just perhaps they are more ready than we give them credit for.  Is this a parent-child relationship, or one of equals?

I know what you will be thinking.  You are thinking about the awful and murderous attack on the patrol base by an Afghan Army Sergeant that left three members of Royal Gurkha Regiment dead.  Tragic though this was, it should not be used to question the validity of training and developing the ANA.  This was not the act of the Afghan National Army; it was the act of an individual, just like in Cumbria and Yorkshire.  Sometimes people do things that do not make sense.  And, 1st Kandak were appalled when they heard about it: shocked, perhaps more than we were.  So, if you are tempted to judge the whole of the Afghan National Army by this one outrage, I would ask you not to.  After all, the ANA are the ticket to a more secure future for hundreds of thousands of ordinary Afghans.  We should be careful not to let our Western revulsion at such a heinous act risk the future of so many.

We are soldiers.  We know the risks.

This is Advizer 10A signing off.