November 29, 2012
Returned from: Afghanistan
I’m an international army officer* who has recently completed an eight-month tour as an instructor and mentor at the Counterinsurgency Training Center -- Afghanistan, which is currently located at Darulaman Garrison, Kabul. CTC-A started off inside Camp Julien, and its administrative office remained there until mid-October 2012. CTC-A will move to the Afghan National Defence University at Qargha when its new facilities are completed.
After arriving in the Spring of 2012, I was tasked as a staff advisor to the ANA, as COIN instructor to both Coalition and ANSF personnel, and as a Validation Officer, which essentially meant travelling with ANA personnel to vet and approve ANA instructors as being qualified to teach. I have returned home without a replacement as the ANA has taken the lead on COIN training in Afghanistan, and I believe they possess the motivation to do so. CTC-A ceased running scheduled COIN training for Coalition Forces in March, and began to draw down its advisory group during the summer. The transition to Afghan control of CTC-A was completed in October of 2012.
I didn’t know I was coming to Afghanistan to do what I wound up doing. That is the nature of the military beast of course, but it still caught me off guard. I volunteered to come to Afghanistan as part of NTM-A’s training efforts for the ANA and this was my first deployment. I’ve been in the army for eleven years, with all of my time as a reservist, but due to a number of factors, I had not managed to get to Afghanistan.
That said, I’m glad I got the chance to come and work at the CTC-A, a job which turned out to be infinitely more interesting than what I expected. I’m going to try to give you some opinions on the limited experiences I have had here in the hope that they will be insightful with respect to advisory capability and US/ISAF accomplishments in Afghanistan and some of the work ISAF advisors have done. I’m going to draw mostly from my own experiences but I will also share some of the “water cooler talk” I’ve had with other organizations.
Were we well trained? I think so to a great extent and I can’t say I have met personnel from any nation I’ve worked who presented evidence of poor or inadequate training. My greatest complaint about the training we received was that with all of the administrative requirements that deploying soldiers must take care of, and doing our actual jobs to get those things done during our pre-deployment training, we often had to miss and then try to catch up on some important training activities. In some cases, people had their jobs change last-minute into advisory roles who had not been particularly worried about advisor-specific training, but they still seem to have adapted well to the roles. I do have to give credit to the operations staff of the battalion I deployed with for doing an impressive job of trying to manage a constantly changing very complex training schedule. In my estimation, the organization has succeeded in accomplishing what was expected of it.
In my role I got the chance to travel around the country a little bit. One thing that struck me was being at Bagram Airfield, the enormous US air logistical hub in Parwan Province north of Kabul. There, I was leaving the DFAC and greeted a local national employee in Dari, and had a rudimentary conversation with him -- about the best I can realistically muster. He was taken aback, and told me “No one here ever speaks to me in Dari.” I can’t say that was representative of the whole place, but everyone deploying should get some language basics, and more importantly, they should put them to use.
It’s an almost universal rule I’ve discovered travelling that people appreciate any attempt to use their language, and that sort of rapport-building is in my opinion a force protection measure above all else. So is the common courtesy of greeting everyone you see rather than treating Afghans as invisible. It doesn’t take long to learn “Salaam alaikum” or “Subh bekhair”, much less “Chetor astee? Fameel knoob ast? Jan-e jure ast?” (How are you, is you family well, are you doing well?) Or “lutfan” and “tashakur.” (Please and thank you). Many coalition partners employ language and cultural advisors who have done simple things like teach a “phrase of the day” during their meetings. These small efforts are extremely valuable to the rapport-building that helps advisors succeed. It does not take long to see the rewards in terms of how you interact with partners.
I’ve seen that there’s an unrealistic expectation that advisors should be fluent in Dari, or that they can reasonably be expected to be. There’s a reason that we employ interpreters, and Afghans understand that. Mastering the language is not important, demonstrating a good faith effort is. Nothing in the world made me laugh more than seeing an “Afghan hand” who had been convinced he spoke excellent Dari, trying to interact with an ANA officer during the Counterinsurgency Leaders Course, only to have the facilitator’s interpreter cut him off with “Can you ask me your question in English so I can translate it, because he cannot understand you.”
Not only that, Afghans are not often direct in the way they speak -- Pashtuns especially often use proverbs, allegories, and so on. The phenomenal video below, called “Lost In Translation,” demonstrates how badly this can turn out. An interpreter completely misunderstands the story he’s being told by a farmer about the presence of Taliban in the area, and relays a completely erroneous translation with his own editorial remarks to a US soldier who is the very model of what we jokingly call “Bad COIN."
Rather than get the help that was being subtly offered, the soldier’s response likely gutted any chance of building rapport. This was an Afghan interpreter who blew the translation, and some are going to propose that a year of intense language training is vital? I’m afraid I don’t agree; it’s far better to invest in training on cultural awareness or something that will actually work in this sort of situation. Such training might have given him insight into what was really happening, and the video of him is now used as a training tool to illustrate that.
In assessing the importance of language and cultural training, I can sum it up with this: make the effort, use the tools, but be realistic about what you can accomplish. Use interpreters to make sure things are clear, but strive to learn and show that you’re learning. Nothing seemed to impress my Afghan counterparts more than when I learned a new phrase and tried it out. Also, let them try out their English and help them build confidence with it. Most of them have learned some, but are hesitant to use it, as we often are with Dari. There’s a related lesson to this: remember that even though Afghans do not speak it, many Afghans do understand basic English -- including obscenities, and when they don’t know the words, body language is often enough. Some “Green-on-Blue” attacks have been documented as coming about this way. I’m notorious for using the f-word as punctuation (call it a regional dialect), and had to make sure that I didn’t while I was in Afghanistan. The nuances of what it means aren’t known there and it can provoke difficulties in relationships.
In an advisory role, it’s often difficult to deal with what was at one point called “Afghan Good” or “Afghan Good Enough” -- more properly described as “Afghan Right.” The advisor who believes that what works “back home” will work here is a fool. “Afghan Right” isn’t a negative thing –- it’s the logical product of good mentorship. It acknowledges that Afghans will draw from their experience, culture, and knowledge as well as ours to create products, processes, and systems that will work for them.
The key that seems to be missing from a lot of efforts here is sustainability. I’ve seen that commentary on everything from development aid to training efforts for ANSF. What’s built here until 2014 has to be able to endure beyond that. It must fit the context in which Afghans live and work, and that has been the focus of many of the people who have worked at CTC-A over its five-year existence. They developed training products that worked in all environments and made sure that instructors could work with what they had, whether it was a lecture theatre with PowerPoint, or a field demonstration using sand tables and rocks. That is the sustainable path. It is vital to remember that what works in our organizations will not necessarily work here -- but at the same time, showing a broad array of tools to our partners helps them to create their own solutions.
In my view, advisory efforts in Afghanistan have been reasonably well executed when considered in the context of what we knew about Afghanistan early on. As we move closer to a final transition, there are a number of things that have appeared as “in hindsight we should have…”, and it can be frustrating to understand that there is no reasonable prospect of getting a “do over.” Further, there are forces beyond the control of anyone in these roles -- political impacts on manning, for example, have the potential to accelerate transitions beyond what might make sense on the ground. That seemed to be the case, however being able to tell our partners that we were leaving forced them to start finding their own solutions to problems -- or to focus on things they wanted to accomplish, which had a net positive effect.
I have returned home satisfied that I’ve made some impact on the ANSF’s capability. Like most who have deployed here, my mood wavers between scepticism and cautious optimism about the future of Afghanistan, but it tends to be more optimistic that Afghans will be able to take the lead when necessary. I’ve often told my Afghan partners that I hope to return here, not only to see how they progress, but to see how the country has progressed, and to explore more of it. Perhaps someday I’ll do it as tourist and not as a solider.
*NTM-A : Nato Training Mission - Afghanistan