PUBLISHER SCOTT TAYLOR recently travelled to Afghanistan while working on his new CPAC documentary Afghanistan: Outside the Wire – End Game. During the trip, Taylor sat down with Major General Dean Milner, the Commander of the Canadian Contribution to the Training Mission in Afghanistan (CCTMA). An experienced soldier since 1984, Milner rose through the ranks and has served on numerous UN and NATO postings as part of The Royal Canadian Dragoons. In August of 2011, MGen Milner assumed responsibility as the 6th Deputy Commanding General– Canadian of III Corps & Fort Hood. MGen Milner deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan in May 2013 where he is currently assigned as Commander of CCTMA. Since the conclusion of the combat mission in 2011, Canada’s contribution has focused on training and educating the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan police. MGen Milner spoke with Taylor in Kabul on the progress that has been made by Canadians and the international community in this mission.
EdeC: General, how is the international community dealing with training the Afghan Security Force to be self-sufficient? Where are we at in terms of that whole project?
MGen Milner: I command the NATO training mission here in Afghanistan which is a big part of where the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police are with respect to the overall picture of where we are at in Afghanistan. We’re responsible for training, advising, and assisting. Canadians have been a big part of that since we left Kandahar in 2011. They’ve come a long way. You look at the force now, the Afghan National Army, being at about 190,000, the police 152,000 plus. [They are] very capable [and] well equipped. There is no doubt that we built the force fast, there is still capabilities that absolutely need to be worked on and that’s what were focused on. My job as the commander is building those institutions and continuing to finish building the force… We continue to train police, refine their training, and train some of the untrained police. Professionalize their force. But I am very confident in their capabilities. I get a chance to see it every day with the Afghans.
EdeC: Who came up with the blueprint for this force structure for the Afghans?
MGen Milner: NTM–A (NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan), which represents NATO, with Canadians, with Americans, Brits, [and] Australians with the Afghans. It takes a look at the situation across the country, takes a look at the counter insurgency, [it takes] a look at the police force, and how much you need to fight that counterinsurgency — to be in the villages, to have controlled checkpoints across the country, and to really be able to fight that counter insurgency without an international force. Now we are at that point making sure that that force is right and is prepared for the future [with] very minor adjustments.
General [Sher Mohammad] Karimi for example is using the force that he has to adjust a few Kandaks potentially, this isn’t confirmed yet, but I might need to put a Kandak here and another here, but size of the force is absolutely spot on. They are going have to continue like any force does to re-look at it. To look at the future to see how insurgency goes, and how the elections go. They’re going to have to take a look at this and adapt to the future, but there’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll keep this probably for a few years and depending if things continue to improve like they will. They will probably start to downsize because it is a big force.
EdeC: At the moment, the Afghan security forces are only being trained to deal with domestic security issues. In their mindset, do they have any grandiose schemes to be able to enforce their own sovereignty? In other words, to have an actual army that would be able to defend its borders from outside threats? Are they looking to have armoured forces or a full-out air force?
MGen Milner: Scott, their absolute focus right now is counterinsurgency fighting — they have got to beat the Taliban. Like any army, you look to the future once you’ve got that professional force. In this complex, dynamic environment with neighbours like Pakistan, Iran, and the Stans to the north, absolutely [Afghan National Army Commander] General Karimi is thinking about it. We continue to build on this Mobile Strike Force Kandak ability, which gives them a little bit more capacity to roll out a manoeuvre reaction force. That’s a pretty good force. They’re looking at potentially building a bigger air force, but that’s down the road.
Their absolute focus right now is having this capability, which is outstanding, to fight a counterinsurgency. So refining that, professionalizing that so they can continue to fight and beat the Taliban. But again, they’re definitely looking at having potentially more capabilities and cutting back on some. They’d love to have a bunch of tanks, but they don’t have the capabilities to sustain that. So they are focusing their maintenance capabilities on the current structure, current force that they have right now.
EdeC: Touching on maintenance and equipment and weaponry as well, what was the genesis of the decision to change the Afghan forces’ weaponry from the Kalashnikov to the American M-16 (M-4) design?
MGen Milner: With our being a NATO force, the big force that sustains and assists them, and has been with them for the last 12 years, it made sense to give the Afghan National Security Forces a western capability. Whether it be Humvees, Ford Rangers, the new reconnaissance vehicle, M-16s or M-4s — it’s made total sense. So it’s something that we’re helping them provide that maintenance and sustainment for. That is a big focus of mine.
Our big focus right now is making sure that they’ve got the right workshops, the right maintenance capabilities, the right supply capabilities to be able to sustain this force in the future ... They do have a mix [of equipment]. Like our armies, they have a multitude of different vehicles. …
EdeC: But the West is 12 years into this intervention and they’re now moving forward at a fast pace. In the beginning, why was the decision made to simply crank out all sorts of light infantry? The decision was made by the international community to make the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) self-sufficient. And since 2002, everyone has been saying the same thing. And yet, in the early stages, the ANSF were given old weaponry and equipment. They were putting on a façade of a security force without investing in literacy training and those sorts of things. Was a mistake made by not building a stronger foundation?
MGen Milner: No, absolutely not. There were other things happening in the world, and we really had to assess the situation here on the ground to know what was needed. That took analysis and that took time. The Americans were obviously [preoccupied with] Iraq and other focuses. It took a team in here to decide [how best] we are going to help them and I think that we’ve driven that hard really the last four or five years. I look at how far they’ve come and where they sit right now and I am absolutely confident. You can sure find fault with things; we could have always started nation-building earlier … Maybe there could have been more analysis … But it’s going well, extremely well …
Two and a half years ago, down in Kandahar, I was in with a brigade, with General Habibi who had a Kandak or two. Building an infantry force is a significant first step — it’s one of the things that beats a Taliban force. [Then] we were starting to look at police. I didn’t have enough police — they were corrupt, they weren’t professional, they weren’t capable. But we have now built that force to those numbers with the professional capabilities to beat the Taliban. They’ll look to the future for other capabilities as things evolve. I think the decisions made, irrespective of when they were made, I think the right decisions were made. Again we’ve driven the force. …
We’re into refining mode now. We are into those small bits of quantity vs. quality. When we talk sustainment, that’s making sure you got the national capabilities to continue to budget, to continue to have the programs, the systems in place, and things are great out on the ground. They’ve got the force that can fight. Is it perfect? It’s not perfect, but it’s getting better every day. …
And they’re doing a great job finding the enemy. Counter-IED capabilities are hugely important stuff. It took us a while to realize. We’ve lost a lot of troops. That’s probably the most complex fight. We’ve had to build the army and slowly but surely help them integrate counter-IED capabilities. They’ve got it. They’ve got a general responsibility for a counter-IED focus. …
EdeC: Everything you’ve said to me is about how sharp the teeth are, you haven’t talk to me about the tail. The trades that these guys need, the mechanics, the doctors, the logisticians, the administrators, those things take longer to train than counter-IED measures. Obviously, those guys are focused because it’s going to save their own life if they’re training in that. These other trades, those are the things that take time. You need education, is that also well in hand?
MGen Milner: Absolutely. I can say it with hand on heart; right now, they understand that education ... is a huge and important part of building their force. They have built combat service support schools. They have been training their maintainers … When you’re building a force, there is a lot to build. You build infantry capabilities and other capabilities, but they have come a long way. This last three years have been a huge focus on the logistics to be able to sustain that force. …
They’ve still got a long way to go, but that is an absolute number one focus for us continuing into the future. But you know, I’m feeling confident that we’re moving in the right direction and that a big effort has been put into it. Canadians have been a big part of that. Look at our medical team. Look at the number of combat medics, physicians assistants, doctors — the ANSF are almost 100 per cent filled on medical assistance.
Our guys, our Canadians, have been over at the national hospital and assisting them build that capability. We’ve got a big force that’s out now. We’re actually going further than combat medic to combat life saver, so we’re building kits for them so they’ve got that absolute point of care injury. They will never have the helicopter capability we have, so they can’t completely count on helicopters. They’ve got the ground evacuation capability and the critical thing is making sure they have that point of injury care so they can stop the bleeding, provide the airways, and make sure that they’ve got those capabilities on the ground.
We’re driving that so it’s going to take time. But again, it’s absolutely moving in the right direction. …
EdeC: where are you guys at with the literacy training?
MGen Milner: We’ve come a long way. We train them at the basic level and we’re trying now to get everybody to level three, which might not seem like much, but the country’s really had [to start from] zero. We’ve also got to [focus on] the trainer program right now, which is training about 2,500 individuals.
Every deputy in a section and the key personnel in the police force are going to be taught how to train their soldiers and their policemen. It’s a huge focus for us. We’ve got every key institution focused on education and they get it. They know an educated force will win in the short and long term, so we’ve seen that come a long way. We’ve got a long way to go, but I could give you stats of the tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands that we’ve put through literacy training and will continue to. We’re continuing to professionalize their force.
We’re taking General Habibi back to Canada for an English course. He’s going to do six months of English and the NSP (National Security Program) course with us. Another big focus is on their officer academy that we’ve just built and the British are driving it. It’s the equivalent of the British Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. So just like them, they’re going to do a year-long officer program, with literacy built in.
EdeC: How long is the course?
MGen Milner: It is a year. It’s the same length as Sandhurst. We would shorten it a bit, but they just put another month into their officer candidate school because they realize that they need better professionals. They’re going to train another 1,000 officers over the next year, but that again takes time. They’ve got a national military academy of Afghanistan, just like our Royal Military College with, I think, almost 2,000 students. That’s just another one of my responsibilities out here. They’ve got stars running that. That has actually been up and running for a few years – seven years, producing quality officers.
They still have a long way to go though. We had a big conference the other day with the GSG1, they were preparing to brief General Karimi on how they are going to progress as an army, what positions they need to be in, and what training they need. All these things are already fairly advanced, but they are refining them and continuing to see the significance of refining of them as a force.
I could go on, but it really gives you a good feeling of confidence when you sit with these Afghans. I sit with the Afghans every day. I am only advising. They’ve got the ball now. They understand where they need to be. I don’t want to sound too optimistic, because we know there are still challenges; they still have a way to go. But the confidence I have is there.