National Affairs column
By Bruce Campion-Smith
Canadian troops are packing up in Afghanistan, confident the Afghan security forces they've helped train will be able to defend the country against persistent insurgent attacks.
This Christmas is a bittersweet milestone as Canadian soldiers mark their last holiday in the war-torn land after more than a decade of fighting insurgents and, more recently, training Afghan army and police units to take on that role themselves.
"I've seen them fight through this last fighting season with very little support and do extremely well," Maj.-Gen. Dean Milner told the Star in a telephone interview from Kabul.
"They've come a long way. Their confidence, their capabilities, their leadership. We've helped them build a pretty strong force," he said.
In addition to commanding the Canadian contingent, Milner is commander of the NATO training mission, responsible for all institutional training of Afghan national security forces, both army and police.
Since 2011, Canada's military contribution to Afghanistan - named Op Attention - has focused on training the Afghans, a role Canadians excel at, Milner said.
"Canadians are natural working with people and the Afghans really get along with Canadians. They like us. We have a knack for working with them," he said.
The Afghan army now has close to 190,000 troops and the police have 152,000 members in its ranks. Milner, who spent time as a commander in Kandahar, has watched as their capabilities have evolved and improved.
He said there was concern several years ago in particular about the "professionalism" of the police force. "They weren't trained . . . we knew we had to get them trained. We knew we had to help them out with things like literacy."
And, Milner said, efforts have focused on integrating police with the army units so they could "fight together as a team."
He saw evidence those efforts are paying off over the summer months, after the Afghans assumed responsibility for leading security operations in June.
"About midway through the fighting season, they got all the generals together, police chiefs. They looked at their lessons learned from the first half of the fighting season and then what they needed," Milner said.
He concedes there is work to be done. For example, he said efforts are needed to boost leadership in the Afghan forces. They haven't yet had the time to nurture experienced leaders. Work is also needed on the system to procure equipment as well as logistics, which Milner said is critical to sustain a large army.
As the Christmas decorations were going up in the Kabul outpost named Camp Eggers where the Canadians have their headquarters, much else is being packed as soldiers count down the days.
Much of the equipment has been returned to Canada and just 260 soldiers remain in Afghanistan. Many will fly home in January, leaving about 100 who will remain until the mission ends in mid-March.
At that point, the departure of the Canadians will end a military commitment that began in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Canadian forces initially deployed to Kandahar, moved to Kabul and then returned to Kandahar for a prolonged combat mission in southern Afghanistan.
The commitment has been a costly one. According to the defence department, 138 soldiers were killed in action, another 20 died from other causes; 635 were wounded and a further 1,436 soldiers suffered non-battle injuries. These include soldiers injured in traffic accidents, other accidental injuries and those returned home for medical reasons.
Milner he said Canadians can take pride in what the military has done in Afghanistan.
"We've really helped the Afghans, really given them a lot better capability. We fought hard in Kandahar, held the fort down there, helped governance," Milner said.
"We've learned a lot as an army, how to train for a complex, tough environment," he said. "I think we've really grown and learned a lot. An army needs to that. It prepares us better for any other options."
Bruce Campion-Smith is a national affairs column writer with Torstar Syndication Services