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    Canadian Forces OMLT: Slowly working themselves out of a job

    Canadian Forces OMLT: Slowly Working Themselves Out of a Job

    Photo By Canadian Forces MCpl Kevin Paul | An Afghan national army officer briefs his troops on procedure prior to departure on a...... read more read more

    AFGHANISTAN

    07.16.2007

    Story by Kristina Davis 

    National Defence Canada

    By Kristina Davis
    National Defence Canada Public Affairs


    MA'SUM GHAR, Afghanistan — The roses are in bloom. Pink, yellow, orange—they literally grew metres in the last months. They border a garden at the back of the compound shared by the Afghan national army (ANA) and the operational mentoring and liaison team (OMLT).

    The garden teams with crabgrass and is now even greener against the unforgiving brown rock and dirt of Ma'sum Ghar. And while it's the only green in the Forward Operating Base (FOB), beyond the walls the earth is alive.

    Outside the FOB with its crater-like feel, it's green. A river rushes through the Panjwayii district—some 30 kilometres west of Kandahar City—although the river's course seems to shift often and expectantly. With the water comes fields of wheat and fields of poppies. Vibrant pink, they are at once beautiful and strangely mesmerizing. Only weeks before, the entire valley was dust.

    And one year ago, the area was deserted. Families fled and have only recently begun to return. Operation MEDUSA was fought here. It's an area rich in history made richer by the footprints of the Canadians who have come before.

    A Message at the Shura

    Major Sakhi Mohammad Barriz, an artillery officer and now the deputy commander of the 2nd Kandak, is originally from Kabul. He attended military university and has had a career in the army that spans almost 20 years.

    When the Taliban captured the country, he went to Pakistan with his family where he remained until coalition forces began to arrive. He then joined the ANA as an operations officer. He, too, has seen improvements in the Panjwayii District. "The roads and bridges are being fixed," he explains. "Farmers are farming and the grapevines are growing."

    He says the area is now about 90 percent safe, thanks to the joint efforts of the ANA, the Afghan national police and Canadian soldiers. "People feel safe," he explains.

    That feeling is evidenced by the farmers in the fields. The children going to school and the activities of daily life, unheard of before, have resumed. The situation, though, is nowhere near perfect. That lingering 10 percent—those last percentages—remain deadly. So deadly that farmers who want to work their fields at night are asked to do two things: use lights so they can be seen and never, ever dig near the roadside.

    At a local Shura, those points are emphasized and security tops the discussion.

    Maj Barriz goes to the Shura attended by some 60 members. Maj James Price, the Kandak Commander mentor from 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR) at CFB Gagetown, accompanies him. They sit side by side. As Shura members arrive, the men file under the shade—the temperature is soaring to the mid-40s (Celsius). They greet one another—sometimes with warm embraces. They remove their shoes and sit cross-legged on a vibrant red carpet lined with equally vivid green and red pillows.

    Once the district chief starts addressing the Shura, he has their full attention, save for the ringing of cell phones. There are issues, he says. Security remains one, as is the challenge of recruiting local youth to work in the auxiliary police force. Plus, he wants members of the Shura to have identification cards. They have been targeted and he wants them easily distinguishable from those who come to the meeting to file applications.

    There are more comings and goings and then Maj Barriz asks to speak. He has a message—perhaps an unexpected message. It's not about the ANA, it's not about security, it's about the Canadian soldiers. "They have left families thousands of miles away," he begins. "They are a different religion, from a different country, but they are here."

    OMLT: Mentoring for the Mission

    The OMLT Headquarters sits inside a mud house, the walls shaped and strengthened by years in the sun, the roof incredibly steady. ANA and Canadian soldiers work side by side. They warmly greet each other in the other's language.

    To say it's stinking hot is an understatement and, while Canadians love to talk about the weather, at some point—well, there's no point. It won't get cooler until the sun goes down.

    Maj Price is originally from Chilliwack, British Columbia. He's going on 18 years in the Canadian forces. Asked about the OMLT, he uses words like 'liaise' and 'suggest' and 'advise'. The language is important, he says, because he and his team are mentors. They offer suggestions and possibly new ideas. But they do not command the Afghan soldiers.

    And while he admits language can sometimes be a challenge, the use of interpreters has all but erased that concern. Plus, he adds, "He (the Kandak commander), speaks military, I speak military." That language, it seems, is universal.

    Maj Price believes mentoring involves establishing rapport and it's a two-way street. "It's being seen as a warrior in his eyes, as he is in mine," he explains. To establish that kind of relationship demands that they work, live and fight together.

    Asked about the commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Shereen Shah Kohbandi, Maj Price says simply: "He's a leader of men." Plus, he adds, he cares for his troops. But while a soldier is a soldier is a soldier, there are some clear differences between CF and ANA personnel. The Canadians know it and the Afghans know it. It comes down to equipment.

    They don't have the facilities, the radios, the weapons or the body armour we do, explains Maj Price. The difference is jarring when CF members mount up in the RG-31 and Afghan soldiers pile into Ford trucks for a patrol.

    "It's frustrating trying to get them out there to do the job," explains Maj Price. And while it's clear it's a job they want to do, equipment issues remain.

    Miracles of Medicine

    Sergeant Mike Escott, with 1 Field Ambulance from Edmonton, Alberta, mentors the medical elements of the Kandak. He, along with three other medics, also cares for members of the OMLT, if the need arises, and ANA soldiers.

    One of the main challenges facing the ANA is the unavailability of medical supplies. To that end, Sgt Escott and one of the ANA medics put together a list of requirements. It was translated and sent up the supply chain—still a paper-based system. It's a small step in the right direction.

    The ANA medics, he says, may have a different way of treating patients but their first aid skills are good. In fact, he assisted Captain Noury Rohullah with a surgery he never would have even attempted—sewing muscle in a particularly nasty gash on an ANA soldier's arm. "We did it right here," Sgt Escott says excitedly. "We did not send him to KAF."

    However, he says, there's still room for improvement both in hygiene and in preventive medicine. From hand washing, which is stressed again and again even among CF members, to improving the environment for patients, he says, the ANA medics want to make improvements. "They are open to us," he explains. "They welcomed us into the Kandak. It's genuine."

    Three Tank Hill

    Away from Ma'sum Ghar sits the aptly named "Three Tank Hill". There are, as the moniker suggests, three tanks left by the Russians rusting on a hill. From the hill, though, the view is breathtaking.

    Local Afghans work in the heat. It's mid-morning and they are filling countless sandbags. ANA soldiers are there, too. It would be a nice spot if it weren't for the vipers.

    Sgt Steve Powell, from 3 RCR, is another mentor. Born in England, he grew up in Brantford, Ontario. He describes his job as a "guiding hand". He is the weapons company mentor with an affection for all that goes boom.

    In fact, before he joined the CF, he worked at a Toronto company customizing limousines and hearses. He wondered, with his punch card in hand, if he would just clock-in and out of work forever. A friend joined the military and Sgt Powell liked what he heard. "I can't think of too many factories," he says wryly, "that would let you launch hand grenades in the parking lot." He was sold.

    He measures success with his ANA mentorees in the small and even unanticipated changes he sees. One night he went to a meeting and came back to find the ANA personnel all in their positions. "Are you practicing a stand to?" he asked. They were, and they wanted him to ensure everything was in order. That was a good night for Sgt Powell.

    And while he admits there's continued challenges with sustainment, he sees a tenacity in not only the ANA soldiers, but also the local civilian population. "They are not big, muscular people," he says. "They don't look tough or rugged, but they are durable, tenacious people."

    "They can go on little food and water and survive in devastatingly hard conditions."

    He's also impressed by some of the soldier's skills in the field. "They can even make bread on a hot rock," he explains. BeaverTails eat your heart out...

    Asked about the OMLT as the CF's exit strategy, he becomes serious. He says this mission is a great challenge. "You will face challenges like you never have before," he says. "And make no mistake, you will be in the field. Period."

    But, he adds: "Imagine the rewards sown and reaped by your own hand like you have never known." So yes, the CF will one day leave. And yes, the CF has gently shouldered some of the ANA's burden so it can re-build, and when the time is right... But, adds Sgt Powell, "You don't leave a vacuum ...you just don't."

    A History in the Making

    LCol Wayne Eyre is the commanding officer of the OMLT from 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in Edmonton, Alberta. He's been to Cyprus, Croatia—the Medak Pocket—Bosnia and now Afghanistan.

    He says the OMLT has a number of roles to play, key among them increasing the proficiency and professionalism of the ANA. And they are succeeding. In fact, he says that as far as Afghan government institutions go, the ANA is way out front. "Soldiers are increasingly more proficient and are steadily improving," he says. And his ultimate goal? "We are working ourselves out of a job," he explains.

    Indeed, when the ANA can conduct operations without the support of coalition forces, the goal will have been achieved. LCol Eyre says they are using a gradual and phased approach. But he, too, knows there remains many challenges. He's also cautious that in mentoring the ANA, CF members are not simply creating or mimicking the Canadian system. Both culturally and logistically speaking, that could prove disastrous. Instead, Afghan solutions in the Afghan context are best.

    Of his team, he says he was lucky to hand pick them from units across the country. And some of the qualities he looked for: patience, a professional competence and a self-reliance. And, he adds, he had no end to volunteers. "Soldiers," he explains, "are very intrigued by this kind of thing."

    A history buff, LCol Eyre gave his team a reading list. If Afghanistan has a wealth of anything, it's history, and he wanted his team to develop an understanding of its richness. He also wanted to foster cultural awareness. It's clear he has. It's also clear there's a genuine and mutual affection among his team and the ANA. "They are a tremendously hospitable people," he explains, constantly inviting CF members for chai. But there's far more to it. There's also a deeper connection.

    When Canadian soldiers died, LCol Eyre says the Kandak commander and other ANA soldiers, were visibly upset. They can't bear the loss of Canadian lives protecting their country. Their grief was such that they took special precautions to protect CF members. "That feeling of teamwork is the essence of this job," says LCol Eyre.

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    NEWS INFO

    Date Taken: 07.16.2007
    Date Posted: 07.16.2007 12:57
    Story ID: 11295
    Location: AF

    Web Views: 387
    Downloads: 239

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