Two soldiers are chatting in the long queue snaking out of Camp Bastion’s passenger-handling shed while they wait to check-in for a flight:
Those ANA [Afghan National Army] blokes over there are mine,” one of them said proudly to his mate.
I’m mentoring them. They’re great fighters, but you do need to make sure you’re standing butt side of them when they charge into battle.
His mate nodded knowingly. British troops all over Helmand know about the ANA’s reputation as determined and undoubtedly brave soldiers - but ones who sometimes need their enthusiasm curbing.
Helping to channel this warrior spirit into a professional fighting force is the UK’s Brigade Advisory Group (BAG). There are 250 military personnel in the BAG who partner and support the ANA in training and developing their troops.
The BAG’s headquarters is at Camp Tombstone (part of Camp Bastion’s ever-burgeoning complex) and while much of the basic skills training takes place at neighbouring Camp Shorabak, teams of between 15 and 20 embed with the ANA in forward operating bases, acting as a link between the British battle groups and their ANA partners:
Our role? It’s sort of a mix of grease and glue,” said Captain Tom Russell.
We support the ANA and advise them, developing their capability without imposing upon them our ways of doing things.
Having completed their eight weeks’ basic training in Kabul, up to 1,400 ANA recruits’ next stop is Camp Shorabak, where they learn the techniques, tactics and practices employed specifically in Helmand.
Here they become familiar with NATO weapons, how to use a radio, basic medical skills and the fundamentals of counter-IED techniques. A recent addition to the programme is a driving course where 28 lucky young Afghans get to hurtle around in Humvees:
For some reason they really like to practise their reverse parking most,” said Captain Russell.
All the training is Afghan-led, with BAG mentors giving advice on course tempo, content and training methods:
There is a tendency for some instructors to rely too much on chalk and talk, so we show them how to keep the students engaged,” said Lance Corporal Sean O’Brian.
But the Brits keep a low profile in the classroom and there is little need for them to step in:
The Sergeant Major gets them into lines in the morning. If we are delayed, by the time we get here they are in the classrooms and the instructors are getting on with it. So happy days,” said Captain Russell.
I have seen a couple of tribal faction issues in the classroom. It’s usually sorted out by the instructor. We haven’t ever had to step in, and we wouldn’t want to. Afghans respect subject knowledge, so they are keen to listen and learn.
And so they seem to be. In the signals classroom 18 recruits sit on benches comprised of wooden beams on top of old ammunition boxes while they are shown how to put a radio set together.
Lance Corporal Neal Jones, a mentor from the Royal Army Medical Corps, has also been impressed by the ANA. During a partnered operation north of Gereshk, ANA troops, unbidden, raced to the aid of ISAF troops who had taken casualties:
Out of a patrol of 12, eight ISAF troops were injured. To get them out the ANA had to cross 300 metres of open ground under heavy fire. I can tell you getting one person out is bad enough. If I’d been one of the four unhurt, I’d have been glad to see those guys coming to help,” said Lance Corporal Jones.
There is progress but there are also frustrations too when students are recalled by their commanding officers before completing the training or when recruits with particular aptitudes return to their kandaks (ANA brigades) to roles where they cannot apply their skills.
But this is not just an Afghan issue. It is a problem that any commander faces when he has objectives to achieve with not as many boots on the ground as he needs. How do you factor in a training margin when your manning levels are under strength?
Outside the classrooms is Sergeant David Thomson’s pride and joy. It’s an ‘Op Barma’ route - 300 metres of carefully constructed training area seeded with dummy IEDs, booby traps and hazards. To add a bit of pep to watch where you step, Sergeant Thomson links some of the ‘IEDs’ to pressure pads wired up to buzzers:
Some of the recruits are brilliant at reading the ground signs [spotting when the earth has been disturbed],” he said.
Last week one young lad spotted five out of the six I’d laid just by walking along pointing them out one after another, saying ‘IED, IED, IED’. He was pretty cocky until I called him back to point out one even he’d missed.
Coping with the students’ short attention spans is a problem for Sergeant Thomson, but one he relishes:
I love doing this. I am trying hard to lift the standards of training by building different models, constantly laying different scenarios.
The route he has built, to start with using only his bare hands and a shovel, has won him plaudits from the experts:
Look,” he said, holding up calloused hands for inspection, “these blisters are my stigmata.
I’ve had the Engineers in here doing their refresher training and they told me my range is better than the one they use in Bastion.
Developing the route is also a team building exercise. At the end of every intake, Sergeant Thomson gets the recruits to extend it for those in the next batch, and they are happy to do it:
Our learning is getting better and better. We learn how to use the Valon metal detector, it makes finding IEDs easy for us,” said Afghan instructor Abdul Basir.
The students chorus their agreement:
We join the army to do good for our country, and our country needs your army to help us. For that we say thank you.
At Forward Operating Base Shawqat in Nad ‘Ali, Sergeant Nick Hall is training more experienced ANA troops in some of the more challenging aspects of counter-IED techniques. They are making progress, and beginning to prove themselves on operations.
It would be nice to do more, but he faces a familiar problem:
Some of them are very keen to progress. But the Kandak CO [Commanding Officer] wants to keep his team together, so putting on a specialist course probably isn’t feasible as it would take too long and he probably couldn’t free them up for long enough.
Issues like this fuel the debate about whether training should be pushed out to the front line where kandak commanders can pick out personnel only days into their training or if it should be concentrated at Bastion where recruits stand a better chance of completing the courses.
But here, as at Camp Shorabak, the ANA are clear about why they are fighting and neatly turn the tables when asked why they are here:
The question is same for you, why are you here? It’s to protect your family and your country, and that is why we are here too.
Captain Pearse Lally, 1st Battalion Irish Guards, heads Shawqat’s BAG, and keeps the training programme running for the 80 or so ANA soldiers straining at the leash. So their next challenge is getting to grips with mortars:
It is very much a first and it will be an added capability for them. I’ve had guys who haven’t even seen a mortar before, and some who have only fired ones left by the Russians using Russian timing tables.
Developing the ANA’s capability is crucial for the country’s future and Captain Lally feels that overall, as far as the BAG training is concerned:
We have just got it all very right.
This article is taken from the March 2011 issue of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.