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Canada's new Afghan training mission kicks into gear

The army’s new training mission in Kabul is not without risk, Canadian commanders said over the weekend as they took stock of the potential threats that face their troops.

Their point was underlined by the recent shooting death of a U.S. soldier in a usually placid region of the volatile country.

The biggest hazard facing Canadian troops in their new role will come from the possibility of some Afghan students going rogue, or an insurgent slipping into their camps, said the mission’s deputy commander.

It’s a far cry from the daily blizzard of roadside bombs, rockets and ambushes the troops faced in Kandahar in their combat mission, which formally ended last week.

The Conservative government has presented the Canadian training mission to the public as being in the relatively benign confines of Kabul.

But there is still a low-intensity war happening in and around the Afghan capital — one that has a different texture and a slightly different face than what Canadians have known for over five years in the south of the country.

Terrorist attacks are an ever-present danger, but are often directed at local government institutions and lightly defended spots frequented by foreigners, such as major hotels, said Col. Peter Dawe.

It’s rare for NATO troops to come under direct, sustained assault, the way they do the southern Afghanistan and Canadians are adjusting to the new reality accordingly.

“I would say the No. 1 risk is infiltration,” Dawe said. “Whether it’s an imposter, a disgruntled Afghan National Army member, someone who could turn on you in a hurry. It is a risk. It is a real risk, but it’s something we try to mitigate.”

That point was hammered home Saturday when a U.S. soldier was gunned down in the normally pastoral northern province of Panjshir by a bodyguard for the local intelligence officer.

There have been a dozen instances over the last two years of Afghan police turning on their soldier mentors with equally lethal results.

NATO has implemented tougher screening measures for the police and even deployed behavioural specialists, known as human terrain mapping teams, to assess potential dangers from within.

“You never know how successful you are at prevention,” said Canadian Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, who is NATO’s deputy commander of police training. “You won’t know what you don’t know. I think the shared vigilance, which on the part of the Afghans is high and our vigilance, which is always high, is mitigating the risk of a lot of these.”

The Afghan army, which has rarely had soldiers turn on their mentors, recently instituted an eight point screening process to guard against insurgent sleepers.

“Frankly, it’s about as thorough as you can get,” said Dawe.

In some respects, Canadians have moved to an area where there is a tougher, more vicious type of insurgent, who strike infrequently but with precise, spectacular results.

That breed is known as the Haqqani Network, which has a close relationship with al-Qaida, and has claimed responsibility for much of the murder and mayhem in the Afghan capital.

Unlike garden variety Taliban, whose ranks are swollen with farmers and hired guns, the Haqqanis are a dedicated, cold-eyed band of jihadists, who have no compunction with indiscriminate killings.

The group’s military operations are led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is believed to have over 4,000 Taliban fighters under his direction and is No. 1 on NATO’s “capture or kill” list, according to recently WikiLeaks postings.

The network is thought to be behind the complex and drawn out attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel last month.

The base where Canadian troops are headquartered — Camp Phoenix — came under a co-ordinated assault in April by three suicide bombers and a second team of fighters who lobbed rocket propelled grenades from the across the street.

The soldiers in the towers held firm and the attack was repelled, said. U.S. Brig-Gen. John Hammond, commander of the 26th “Yankee” Brigade, which is responsible for security at all of the seven camps where Canadians are present.

“There are threats in Kabul every day of week because I think the insurgency knows this is the dramatic centre,” said Hammond.

Security on the streets of the capital is an Afghan responsibility and Hammond said passing the baton to them has “not come without some risk.”

Meanwhile, the threat to the nearly four dozen Canadian trainers who will deploy later this year to Mazar-e-Sharif, in the north and Herat, along Afghanistan’s western frontier, is still being assessed, said Dawe.

The north and west of the country have seen a spike in violence this year, including a weekend kidnapping and murder near Herat of seven people working for a demining charity.

Both regions have seen a rise in the influence of the foreign-based Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, another al-Qaida affiliate which has thrown its lot in with the Taliban.

Almost half of the 950 person Canadian contingent has arrived on the ground in Kabul where the majority of them are overseeing Afghan classroom instructors.

The training mission is slated to last until 2014.

In what could be sign of Canadian confidence in the relative stability of the area and the diminished threat of roadside bombs, the army has shed its 26 tonne light armoured vehicles in favour of just the armoured RG-31 Nyalas.

A contingent of them arrived by air over the weekend, along with other stores from the unwinding combat mission.

Maj. Doug Thorlakson, who is the senior logistics officer, said they’ve been able to move equipment quickly from the south, so rapidly in fact that with 48 hours of a soldier slipping off a flak vest in Kandahar, it’s being unpacked in Kabul.

He said the mission has been “really, really lucky” to be able to draw off the massive stores and stockpiles in Kandahar — something that will save the cash-strapped federal government from having to ship it back.

The classroom instruction, which is at the centre of the Harper government’s new Afghan strategy, is underway in earnest at a base in eastern Kabul located a few hundred metres from Camp Julien, which was the focus of Canadian army operations between 2003 and 2005.

Afghan troops are being taught literacy skills to get them to a Grade 3 level along with advanced courses for junior non-commissioned officers.

Canadian are not actually doing hands on training, but rather supervising and coaching the Afghan instructors.

Maj. Darren Hart said one of the obstacles they face is getting battle-hardened Afghan units to give up some veterans to help train the fledgling soldiers.

One of the objectives over the next year is to build a cadre of seasoned instructors.