Straight Talk
SIMON KENT - Major General Jim Ferron struggles to understand Afghanistan

Foreign security personnel inspect the site of a suicide bomb attack in Kabul November 21, 2012.

Credits: REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

SIMON KENT | QMI AGENCY

TORONTO — You never get to fully understand Afghanistan — you just learn to work within it and alongside the people.

So says a Canadian career soldier who knows more than most about operating in what is still one of the most dangerous places on Earth.

Maj.-Gen Jim Ferron is five months into his year-long posting as commander of the Canadian Training Mission in Afghanistan and deputy commanding general for the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan.

It's a double-hatted role: Ferron leads Canada's contribution of almost 1,000 troops and serves at senior staff level with his NATO colleagues tasked to train an efficient Afghanistan army able to fight for itself.

"Yes, it is a rare double-role, but I am here to work," Ferron said from his base in Kabul. "It's also not my first time here, so I am very aware of the challenges that lie ahead for our people and the Afghans themselves.

"I certainly don't see it ending tomorrow or the day after. It is dangerous, challenging work."

One of those dangerous challenges is improvised roadside bombs — the major killer of NATO troops in Afghanistan for the past two years. They rank as the single major threat to Afghan soldiers and local police as they slowly take leadership of their country's fledgling security.

The exacting process of locating, disarming and disassembling these hidden weapons is a specialized capability that has mostly fallen to highly trained engineer specialists within the NATO force component. That hasn't stopped NATO working to impart specialized knowledge to Afghan security forces, although there is never enough expertise or enough people to go around, Ferron said.

"It's a human tragedy for all concerned when a soldier is injured or killed with one of these, but it's absolutely heartbreaking when children here in Afghanistan are deliberately subjected to the effects of war, so that's what I mean by saying not enough people.

"NATO is moving to a model of 'train the trainers' and I think we are having success. Ultimately, if we put ourselves out of a job then we will have succeeded by any measure."

Ferron is on his second posting to Afghanistan. He said that experience prepared him for the challenge of command, but also made him aware of the limitations.

"You never fully understand Afghanistan, but I've been there before so I'm familiar with the challenges," he said.

Ferron's career before this posting has helped prepare the way.

He previously served as commander of the 1st Canadian Division, Kingston, a major role in preparing the men and women of the Canadian Forces for operations around the globe.

"When you're tasked to lead and command great men and women in full-spectrum operations,” he said,” it focuses your mind on the acute requirements of operational service.

"So that responsibility gives confidence and hopefully I can impart that to my NATO and my Canadian colleagues."

Divisional command also meant working with Canadian government departments and Canada's international allies, something that has been a singular distinction of Ferron's career.

His operational includes four years on NATO duty in Germany, a UN peacekeeping mission in Cyprus, a tour with NATO in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a year in Afghanistan with NATO and two years of duty with the U.S. Central Command.

Now he has six more months to help bring stability to a troubled land and continue work to negate the devastating affects of roadside bombs.

From January to May this year, some 469 Afghan troops were killed by these terrorist weapons of choice, according to the latest Congressional Research Service report. During the same period, 181 NATO troops were killed, according to statistics listed on iCasualties.org.

"Even one death is one too many,” he said.

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