Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Canada in Iraq: Trainers should build on Afghanistan Experience

Written by: Matthew Fisher, National Post
Published the Monday February 9, 2016 Ottawa Citizen - NP Section 


A soldier who ran Ottawa’s training mission for Afghan soldiers and police battling the Taliban believes the 500 Canadian Forces trainers bound for the Middle East to work with Iraqi forces fighting ISIL should mentor them on the battlefield as well as in garrison, as Canadian troops did in Kandahar in 2006-11.
A CAF Member instructs Afghan National
Guard how to load a riffle
That candid assessment by Col. Gregory Burt, who retired last summer after more than 30 years with the Royal 22nd Regiment, the Van Doos, comes as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Monday that Canadians being sent to instruct Iraqi forces would not be involved in combat.

“Motivating them in a secure training base where someone is not firing at you is a lot different than when the enemy has a vote,” said Burt, who took me several times to see his troops mentoring Afghan forces in dicey situations on the battlefield.

“When the enemy is going to the other flank, you’ve got to be able to say, ‘You don’t want to go there’ … Our stellar actions under fire were a motivating factor, Afghans saw us out there when the s--- was going down everywhere. It was a demonstration that we were with them.”

When they accompanied Afghan troops into battle, the Canadian trainers also directed artillery fire, called in airstrikes and arranged for helicopters to get the wounded to hospital quickly.

However, Burt says no trainers were with him when he saw action for the first time and everything he had learned about combat came from training behind the lines. The career infantryman is gung-ho about the new training assignment.

“The reason we can do well on every kind of mission is that I don’t think any other army trains as well as we do,” said the 52-year-old Newfoundlander. “It is in our doctrine and the way we give our junior ranks independence. Our maturity is above and beyond that of others.”

Canadian forces spent five years helping train in Afghanistan. The situation is different in Iraq, where they will start with “a blank sheet.”

It sounds prosaic, but a key part of the process will be to establish how good the Iraqi students are at mathematics, says Burt, who adds he has not been briefed on planning for the mission.

“To do the nuts and bolts to train an officer to take a platoon down range, you have to first establish a baseline about where they are in their training and the level of their education,” he said. “In Afghanistan, most of them had never been to school so educating them was a challenge.

“If they cannot understand basic math, it is going to be an extremely long time for them to understand their guns. Even to blow up a mine requires (detonation) cords and there are equations that go with that in order to be able to get safely to cover. Anything technical — and that includes the logistics of water and food for soldiers in the fight — requires math.”

He warns there will be no quick fixes for the Iraqi security forces.

“It took us hours in garrison to teach the Afghans skills before we crossed the line of fire with them. It requires patience.”

The rule of thumb is that it takes 40 to 50 weeks to train new recruits to become infantry officers, and 2½ to three years to get those officers on to the battlefield.

OP ATTENTION - Canada's Training Mission in Kabul, Afghanistan. CAF members training Afghan National Guard Members on the firing range. (Photo: OP ATTENTION - DND)
But because of the urgent need to field troops quickly in Afghanistan, the timelines were much shorter. The same is likely to be the case in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Among the top priorities, Burt says, will be to quickly establish a close rapport with the Arab-speaking interpreters, and cultural and linguistic advisers who will provide the vital link between the Canadians and their Iraqi students.

“I guess they will be creating a mini-Gagetown,” Burt said, referring to the army’s combat schools in New Brunswick.

“There will be firing ranges, basic mine awareness, how to conduct road sweeps (for improvised explosive devices), how to issue basic orders and call in their own fire support, map reading skills for leadership, manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre, first aid, training for medics, arranging medevacs for the injured, and teaching how to establish headquarters command and control.

“There will be teams to coach brigade-level intelligence in how to work and to prepare reports, and to give operations officers a common understanding of how coalition forces work.”

Teaching such skills would be even more challenging if the Iraqis’ morale was low or if most of the troops were conscripts.

Burt says that training Afghan forces was the highlight of his career, which included deployments to Somalia, the Balkans and Germany during the Cold War. While he was envious of the challenge facing those receiving orders to deploy to the Middle East, “others now carry the flame and they will succeed.”