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The Afghans' newest challenge: Getting the printer to work

May. 9, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Afghan Air Force Lt. Abdul Ghafer volunteers to demonstrate what he has learned in class at the Kabul, Afghanistan, International Airport. Ahafer was one of 27 students to take part in computer classes taught by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Fred Anane, 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group Plans and Scheduling advisor and Master Sgt. Mark Jansen, 438th AEAG Quality Assurance advisor, for AAF schedulers, mission operations control center personnel and analyst soldiers.
Afghan Air Force Lt. Abdul Ghafer volunteers to demonstrate what he has learned in class at the Kabul, Afghanistan, International Airport. Ahafer was one of 27 students to take part in computer classes taught by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Fred Anane, 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group Plans and Scheduling advisor and Master Sgt. Mark Jansen, 438th AEAG Quality Assurance advisor, for AAF schedulers, mission operations control center personnel and analyst soldiers. (Staff Sgt. Melissa K. Mekpongsatorn/Air Force)
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FORWARD OPERATING BASE NOLAY, AFGHANISTAN — Previous Marine Corps advisory teams trained the Afghan National Security Forces how to execute accurate mortar fire and launch rocket-propelled grenades. But in the final months of their mission in northern Helmand province, some Marines with the team advising the 2nd Brigade of the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps focused on teaching a different set of skills: installing a printer driver, trouble-shooting error messages and encrypting emails.

The mandate for the Marines who would close down Forward Operating Base Nolay was clear: advise and assist the Afghan 2nd Brigade as needed, but promote their independence.

So after a series of visits to brigade headquarters to fix a printer or troubleshoot a desktop computer, three Marines in the data and communications section of the Security Forces Advisory Assistance team decided to hold a class and equip the Afghan soldiers with some basic IT skills. Enrollment in the 14-day seminar included Afghan officers and noncommissioned officers from the brigade’s headquarters element, about 23 troops in all.

They met starting March 7 in a stone-walled room of the Afghan unit’s headquarters facility, and projected Powerpoint lessons the Marines had created onto a bedsheet.

“We opened up a computer, showed them, this is where a CD drive is, this is what powers a computer, this is where the memory is stored, things like that,” said 1st Lt. Brian Prior, communications adviser for the team. “And those guys are great with hands-on stuff. Every single one of them is a MacGyver.”

More challenging, he said, were the lessons focused on program installation and more advanced functions, but the soldiers eventually improved through repetition, Prior said.

Crucially, said data chief adviser Sgt. Derek Crowley, the Marines were able to teach the Brigade’s cipher officer how to send encrypted emails over the limited bandwidth available to the brigade, making the process of communicating with 215th Corps headquarters vastly more secure.

“For a long time, they were [communicating] over radios. That’s all easily intercepted,” Crowley said. “Now that they’re able to use networks that are secure and use the basic functions of a computer and how to send an email and encrypt an email they can send stuff encrypted over satellite.”

Crowley and Prior said they knew they were teaching effectively when Afghan troops would jump into the material and begin teaching a computer concept to their fellow students, while the Marines sat back and watched.

At the end of the class, the students received certificates signed by the Marine team’s commander, Col. Christopher Douglas, and the brigade’s executive officer.

In their last two months in the region, the Marines said they had answered fewer help desk calls, and seen a hopeful sign: Afghan soldiers sharing what they had learned with others.

“It’s more mentorship at this point, that ‘train the trainer,’” Prior said. “I’ve seen guys teach someone how to install a printer driver, someone that didn’t take the class.”

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