- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 9, 2012

A shortage of NATO trainers is complicating efforts to expedite the instruction of Afghan troops about the top threat they will face after international forces leave in 2014 — roadside bombs.

“This is something that they’re crying out for more of,” Canadian armyMaj. Gen. Jim Ferron, deputy commander of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, said in a phone interview with The Washington Times.

Homemade bombs have been the No. 1 killer of NATO troops in Afghanistan for some time, and they have become the top killer of Afghan soldiers and police as they gradually take the lead in their country’s security.

Locating, disarming and disassembling the bombs is a specialized capability that few troops have mastered. Still, NATO considers imparting that expertise to Afghan security forces a high priority, though there are “not enough” trainers, Gen. Ferron said.

“It’s always a tragedy when a soldier is injured or killed with one of these, but it’s absolutely heartbreaking when a child here in Afghanistan is subjected to the effects of war, so that’s why I say ‘not enough’ people,” he added.

However, “Our focus right now is not bringing more American experts or more NATO coalition force experts into Afghanistan,” he said, adding that the training mission will focus on training Afghan troops who then can train their comrades.

“Our efforts now are on training the trainers because we are at the [command] of many of our governments. We are in a transition period,” Gen. Ferron said.

France has said it will remove most of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, after five French troops were killed and 15 wounded by an Afghan soldier in January.

Such attacks, in which Afghan troops turn their weapons on NATO forces, have eroded trust among international troops. Gen. Ferron said the attacks provide NATO trainers with “a challenge.”

With help from private contractors, NATO instructors are planning to train Afghan troops at the “kandak” level, the Afghan unit equivalent to a battalion of 500 troops, he said. The hope is that those kandak-level troops subsequently train other soldiers in smaller units.

“I think it would be safe to say that we have enough to train the Afghans at that level,” Gen. Ferron said.

Instruction in recognizing roadside bombs now is included in the nine-week basic training of Afghan security forces.

NATO trainers provide more-advanced instruction in countering homemade bombs in a 30-day course that teaches Afghan troops how to remove and disarm simple explosive devices.

Qualified Afghan troops seeking to become bomb-disposal technicians undergo six months of in-depth training. Graduates of the course are paired with NATO bomb-disposal technicians, who evaluate their expertise in the field. Those who pass the evaluation then become leaders of bomb-disposal teams.

Because of operational security concerns, the actual number of Afghan soldiers and police officers who have undergone the training could not be released, a NATO spokesman said.

The question of what will happen in Afghanistan after NATO leaves looms large over the trainers.

Retired Army Vice-Chief of Staff Gen. Jack Keane, who advises top NATO commanders in Afghanistan, worries that NATO troops will bring all their bomb-hunting expertise and gear home with them, leaving Afghan security forces with little to combat homemade bombs.

Afghan troops rely on NATO for intelligence collection and analysis, and about 75 percent of roadside bombs found before detonation are detected by NATO troops, Gen. Keane said.

“If we pull the plug on that capability when we leave, and those numbers go down dramatically in terms of detection for [Afghan troops] to about 30 percent, that will [result in] a very significant increase in casualties for them over what they’re currently used to,” the retired four-star general said. “Those are significant battle losses, and the psychological impact will be equally as great.”

From January to May this year, 469 Afghan troops were killed, according to the latest Congressional Research Service report. During the same period, 181 NATO troops were killed, according to iCasualties.org.

Canadian army Brig. Gen. Thomas Putt, director of NATO’s development program for Afghan security forces, told reporters at the Pentagon on Aug. 1 that Afghanistan’s defense and interior ministries are backing a “major, major push” by NATO to provide training in dealing with homemade bombs, also known as improvised explosive devices or IEDs.

“It’s going to be a major push for us this year. Logistics and counter-IED areour No. 1, No. 2 [concerns], and they’re interchangeable because they’re so important to moving the [Afghan security force] ahead,” Gen. Putt said.

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