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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Canadian soldiers go from Afghan warriors to mentors

Cpl. Jennifer Scott of Edmonton, of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse regiment, is a mentor in Operation Attention, where she trains teachers at Mazar-e-Sharif training facility for the Afghan Army.

Photograph by: Supplied, edmontonjournal.com

EDMONTON — As a reservist charged mainly with the security job of driving people around Kabul in 2008, Jennifer Scott of Edmonton imagined that if she ever returned to Afghanistan, her next role would be one in combat.

“But we’ve moved past that, which is a great thing,” the now 22-year-old corporal said last week, calling from the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Scott is among roughly 40 Edmonton-based soldiers assigned to train, advise and mentor Afghan soldiers at Camp Shaheen as they, in turn, train new recruits.

“This time I get to actually interact a lot more with the Afghan National Army,” Scott said. “I’m learning a lot from them, and you know, they’re learning a lot from us. It’s going pretty good so far.”

By the end of this month, Camp Shaheen, just outside Mazar-e-Sharif and roughly 450 kilometres northwest of Kabul, is expected to have 60 Canadian soldiers on base training the local army to train itself.  After nearly a decade at war, much of which saw thousands of Canadian men and women fight in the southern province of Kandahar, Canada’s military role in Afghanistan continues even if its fighting mission has come to an end.

The group at Camp Shaheen make up just a small part of the roughly 950 Canadian soldiers dedicated to Operation Attention, a big-picture rebuilding effort newly focused on advancing security, regional diplomacy, humanitarian assistance and the needs of Afghan children.

“We’re not done here, and I think actually what we’re doing now is just as pertinent if not more so than what we were doing down south,” said Sgt. Bryan Crowston, a member of the 3rd Batallion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

“The mission in Afghanistan is not over,” said Lieut.-Col. Derek Chenette, 37, a member of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse regiment.

“We’ve not cut and run . . . We played a part, the coalition, to set the conditions to create (a) security environment so that we could then try to train the Afghan National security forces so that they could take over security for their own country, which at the end of the day is what everybody wants.”

Since joining the Canadian Forces in 1994, the father of three has been sent to Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Based in Edmonton for much of his career, Chenette has spent the better part of the last 10 years training and recruiting Canadian soldiers at a time when as many as 30,000 would be sent to war in Afghanistan.

Now, for the first time, he is on the ground, mentoring his Afghan counterparts “to take Afghan civilians and turn them into soldiers, and then push them out . . . to take up the fight.”

Like the Canadian men and women he has seen join the military in recent years, Chenette said young Afghans have a range of reasons for becoming soldiers.

“I think that there’s a portion of them that join because they want to see stability and peace back in their country, and they want to play a role in that,” Chenette said. “I think some of them join because they want a better life for themselves and their family. As you can imagine, families over here are quite poor, and the Afghan National Army pays quite well.”
Chenette and his team arrived in Afghanistan in mid-August and are expected to remain until the end of February or beginning of March. He is learning Dari, one of Afghanistan’s official Persian languages, and emphasizes the importance of building relationships with the soldiers he advises.

“When you commit to a mentor mission like this, probably the most important thing you can do in the first month on the ground is work really hard gaining that trust and that mutual respect for each other,” Chenette said.

“I’ve asked my teams to go in there and do what Canadians do best, which is be humble, be professional and be respectful, learn about their culture, learn about them, learn about their families, and then you will have that trust, that mutual respect and hopefully that friendship.
“If people make changes because they want to, because you’ve earned that respect and that trust, those changes will be enduring and stand the test of time, and that’s certainly what we’re aiming to do here.”

Crowston’s current turn as a mentor to Afghan soldiers is his fourth assignment to Afghanistan since 2002, when he was first sent to Kandahar province as a light machine-gunner.

A father of two originally from Dresden, Ont., the 32-year-old said his current role is “much more regulated” than his combat tours, which were “a bit more chaotic.”

Today, Crowston is advising senior Afghan soldiers who, in turn, are training their subordinates to be promoted through the ranks. He is also advising a literacy program, starting this weekend, to bring low-ranking soldiers up to a Grade 3 reading level.
“The more that we can contribute to these guys becoming a professional military, the more faith we can have when we leave here that they’ll do a good job when we’re gone,” Crowston said.

Asked how close the Afghan National Army is to standing on its own, Crowston paused.
“They have a little bit of a way to go. If you think about it . . . we have a hundred years of tradition and background to draw on, and these guys have been a formed military for seven years,” Crowston said.

“But they do find their own solutions to their own problems and they do work hard, and a lot of these guys are proud that they’re in the army, and proud of what they’re doing, and are proud that they’re starting to take over and defend parts of their own country.”
Advising the basic warrior training program, Scott, who is originally from Edmonton, said “we’re getting there,” when asked how close the Afghan military is to being self-sustaining in its training.

Only men are trained at Camp Shaheen; female members of the Afghan National Army are trained in Kabul. However, as a woman, Scott said her advice is not treated differently from that of her male colleagues.

“As the Canadians are coming in and introducing ourselves, they were more or less curious (about) all of us. They know us as Canadians, they tell us, ‘Oh, we love Canada, we love Canada.’ They were so excited to meet all of us,” she said.

“I don’t find that they act differently between me and the guys that I’m around.”
Should Scott find herself in Afghanistan again three years down the road, she imagines a positive outlook for its military.

“There would be a huge improvement in the (army’s) structure. Just being here for a month already I’ve seen lots of improvements in their commander, the instructors, the training,” she said.

“My personal opinion would be they’ll be ready.”
Edmonton Journal

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