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For Afghan advisers, it's the moment of truth

May. 31, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Afghan students at the Regional Corps Battle School at Camp Shorabak, Afghanistan, conduct a training course on a D-30 122mm howitzer. Advisers said indirect fire is the most complex skill they'll learn at the battle school.
Afghan students at the Regional Corps Battle School at Camp Shorabak, Afghanistan, conduct a training course on a D-30 122mm howitzer. Advisers said indirect fire is the most complex skill they'll learn at the battle school. (Hope Hodge Seck/Staff)
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Just days after the Marine Corps pulled the remainder of its forces out of the embattled Sangin valley, a small mobile training team of all-Afghan instructors deployed there from the Regional Corps Battle School that abuts Camp Leatherneck. They arrived in the district to train local army units on the 60mm and 80mm mortar systems.

For the Marines and British troops who comprise the rapidly shrinking team overseeing the school’s operations, this means the final phase of their work is beginning — the period in which they sit back and watch the Afghan National Security Forces operate fully independently. In July, the 62-man Security Force Advisory and Assistance Team will reach a critical decision point as the school graduates its third class of students from the eight-week infantry and combat support specialty training course, this one led and directed entirely by Afghan instructors.

If all goes well, the advisory team may shrink by more than two-thirds, down to 18 advisers. If the Afghan soldiers need more assistance, however, the coalition troops will consider a B Plan. But with the progress made so far, a hard and fast deadline to leave the country, and limited scope for remedial training, everyone is expecting things will go well.

The Regional Corps Battle School was incorporated within the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps headquarters at Camp Shorabak in September, flush with coalition resources poured into new classrooms, a staff compound, counter-IED training lanes and a $33 million range complex for training on everything from rifles, pistols and rocket-propelled grenades to urban assault.

Developing a sustainable, in-depth training institution topped the list of the 215th Corps’ long-term needs. Across the Afghan National Army, a soldier is only guaranteed a single 12-week training course — Basic Warrior Training — which equips him with rudimentary infantry skills. Smaller military specialty schools exist, but those are based at the Army’s headquarters in Kabul, and coalition advisers often found that the troops they sent from Helmand to Kabul opted not to return. The battle school solves this problem by bringing advanced training to Helmand province.

Populating the classes with Afghan instructors, however, has been difficult. The brigades across Helmand and Nimroz are reluctant to send their best soldiers to become instructors at the school, and often send their most dispensable troops instead. For the school’s early courses, the Marine and British advisers resorted to plucking the most promising soldiers directly out of recruit training to develop as instructors.

“It’s not the best way to professionalize your army, but at least you don’t deal with any bad habits, and you’re able to pick the best instructors,” said Marine Maj. Ernest Adams, operations officer for the SFAAT. “And it was the only way we could make sure that we get quality instructors. Not the best way, but the only way.”

The school now has 144 instructors, 109 of whom were selected directly out of training. The school is in what the SFAAT terms the institutional development phase, with Afghan leaders planning, directing and executing training, while Marine and British advisers remain on the ground to observe, correct and offer assistance. In the training and management oversight phase, tentatively slated to begin after the July assessment point, any assistance from the advisory team will be offered at higher-level meetings with school officials, away from classrooms and ranges.

When a Marine Corps Times reporter visited the school in mid-May, Marine advisers hung back as Afghan instructors manned ranges and taught an indirect fires course. The U.S. troops contributed little more than a watchful eye to the action. In one teaching space, soldiers clustered intently around a yellow Russian-made D-30 122mm howitzer owned by the Corps, taking turns looking through the sights. They only learn and practice on equipment owned and maintained by the ANA.

Marine Capt. Matthew Farmwald, the fires adviser, stood by at a distance. He only steps in to offer correction or instruction a few times a week, he said, and only if he sees the soldiers cutting corners on technique or doing something dangerous. Indirect fire is the most complex skill these troops will learn in their training, Farmwald said, and he’s been impressed by the ability of the 16-man class to pick up the technical concepts involved.

“If you would have told me that they’d be able to learn in four weeks in the indirect way, I would have laughed,” he said.

The breadth of the task that the advisory team is attempting is not lost on him, he said.

“It took us over 100 years to get where we are,” he said. “We’re trying to get them there in six months or less.”

The niggling background work that enables armies to operate — a reliable supply and maintenance chain, consistent planning, sound administration — still create regular headaches for the school. As much as possible, the advisers try to stand back and let school officials troubleshoot the problems and learn from their own mistakes.

During one MRAP ride to a training range, Marines groused about an Afghan-led training plan that had somehow resulted in only six rounds per soldier. On another range, a training plan called for 80 rounds per student, and each was issued 100 instead.

“They come up with a plan [for issuing ammunition]; by the time the plan comes back, it will be half, and by the time the ammo comes to the range, half of the half,” chuckled Gunnery Sgt. Romeo Jumawan, chief of the training kandak, or battalion, at the school.

When that happens, he said, the advisers address the issue with the Afghan chain of command to learn what went wrong and work to alter the thinking and decision-making that caused the problem.

But Marine Corps Times did speak to one Afghan instructor who said he made sure his students didn’t have that problem — he stays up until midnight the day before a course and makes a working range plan to meet their needs.

It’s not a well-oiled machine, but Adams, who has been an adviser on four different occasions, said he’s encouraged when the soldiers tell him he’s not needed or wanted; they’re ready to lead a course on their own.

“They’re like, ‘Get off the range, what are you guys doing here?’ ” he said. “And they got it. And that’s the truth.”

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