Credits: DARREN BROWN/QMI AGENCY
TORONTO - The signs of life are hard to ignore in Kabul and where there is life there is hope.
So says a senior Canadian soldier who knows more than most about the recent travails of Afghanistan.
He says the schools are full and the hospitals are open. The roads are busy, the market places crowded and there is a sense of busy purpose around the ancient city.
It’s all a far cry from the fractured society that came with Taliban rule from 1996 until the US-led invasion drove them out in 2001.
Now this ancient city, fifth-fastest growing metropolis in the world, is home base to around 950 Canadian Forces troops and force deputy-commander, Colonel Greg Smith, says they’re busy transferring skills and leadership to local forces.
Since February 2012, the Canadian Forces personnel, primarily from the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, in Gagetown, New Brunswick, have been actively involved in training and preparing the Afghan National Security Forces in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif for the time when NATO departs.
Called Roto (rotation)-1, this group of personnel took over from the first Canadian contingent Roto-0 that arrived in country around mid-2011.
“In their own self deprecating Canadian way, our men and women are reaching out and helping to build society with their Afghan comrades,” Smith said via phone interview from Kabul. “We are standing alongside the local forces and working together, letting our partners more and more take the lead.
“This city is now more secure and safer compared to the terror that once reigned. Whereas once Afghanistan was a failed state, now it is a country with a future.
“That future starts here in Kabul. Canadians are a key part of the process.”
That’s not to say the Afghanistan posting is without risk. Smith acknowledges that a city of close to 5 million people can be a dangerous place with occasional car bombings and terror attacks.
“The point now is that Afghanistan forces provide their own security and are dealing with the major threat which is insurgency.
“The local troops patrol and respond to events that in the past were handled by foreign troops who are now taking a back seat.
“It means they are taking more casualties because they are exposed to the risk.”
For is own part, Smith brings a wealth of experience to the task.
He was born in Oshawa, Ontario and graduated from the College militaire royal de St-Jean (CMR) in 1993 to start a busy military career.
Smith’s operational deployments include Operation Harmony in Croatia in 1994-95 as a platoon commander, Operation Athena in Kabul in 2003-04 as Battalion Group Operations Officer, in Kandahar in 2009-10 as a Task Force Commander and now with Operation Attention as the Deputy Commander.
Operation Attention is Canada’s contribution to the NATO Training Mission, Afghanistan, which delivers training and professional development support to the National Security Forces of Afghanistan: the Afghan National Army, the Afghan Air Force, and the Afghan National Police.
Combining this experience with his two previous postings in Afghanistan has given Smith the unique opportunity of seeing the country throw off the shackles of Taliban rule and prosper under the protection of international forces.
“We are aiming to put ourselves out of a job,” Smith said. “By equipping the Afghans to stand alone we know we will not be needed in the future. If nothing else we have helped deliver hope.
“The Afghanistan I see now is so different to that first encountered back in 2003. They are almost like different countries.”
As the main elements of Roto-1 prepares to come home, Smith is keen to point out that every effort is being made to prepare the men and women under his command for the changes they are about to experience.
De-briefing and recovery from the mission comes courtesy of a break “on an island in the Mediterranean” before the troops set foot in Canada.
“We devote time and effort to getting the mental situation right. We have a padre system, we have what we call ‘decompression’, because being away from family and friends can be stressful.
“We do get plenty of support from back home and our aim is to make sure recovery is handled as well as all our in theatre preparation.”
The work is already being applauded here in Canada.
Last weekend the first returning troops of Roto-1 met unstinting praise from the highest level.
“The men and women of the Canadian Forces who are returning from Afghanistan made a huge contribution to the professionalization, training and education of thousands of Afghan National Police and military members.
“Those they trained are key to helping Afghanistan provide for a better future for all its citizens,” said General Walter Natynczyk, Chief of the Defence Staff.
“These returning men and women can be rightfully proud as they have brought great credit to Canada and to the Canadian Forces.”