‘These guys are incredibly brave. They have become quite fearless’ - How Scots-trained Afghan soldiers are giving the country cause for optimism

Trainee Afghan National Army officer Amrodin, 34, of Badkhan in Darahim province. Picture: Getty
Trainee Afghan National Army officer Amrodin, 34, of Badkhan in Darahim province. Picture: Getty
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THE TROOPS of 1 Scots Battalion took time to reflect on the death of one of the best among them as Captain Walter Barrie was buried on Thursday. Each soldier, stationed at bases across central Helmand, downed tools and weapons; others paid their respects in person at an emotional service at Glencorse Kirk, Penicuik.

The break in Afghanistan was short, as the 420 men and women on the front line there know they have a job to do. 1 Scots, as the appointed Brigade Advisory Group (BAG), are performing the most vital job in the campaign, training Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers in the methods that can keep their country secure. The BAG soldiers are in a race against time, as the ANA needs to be up to scratch by the end of 2014, when International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops are set to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers hold rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers. Picture: Getty

Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers hold rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers. Picture: Getty

Hundreds of Afghans are now advanced enough to train the men below them in how to carry out raids on insurgent forces and to deal with the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that wreak havoc across the country. The role taken on by 1 Scots in this six-month tour involves training hundreds of soldiers from six Kandaks (battalions) of the 215 Brigade of the ANA, based at Camp Shorobak, which is next door to the Scottish battalion’s Camp Tombstone base.

Facilities include firing ranges for the ANA’s American M16 assault rifles and M240 machine guns, IED training fields, and strips of land dedicated to sharpening ground sign awareness, which is critical in spotting roadside bombs. The training goes on despite the spectre of the “insider attack” or “Green on Blue” murders, like that of their comrade Capt Barrie, killed by an ANA soldier he was mentoring at Camp Shawqat.

A unit of around 100 soldiers take on primary training at Tombstone; other units are scattered at 13 patrol bases across central Helmand. Plans to either dismantle the patrol bases or adapt them for takeover by ANA forces are at an advanced stage. Army engineers are in talks with Afghan commanders about structural changes that will bring the most secure conditions after the international forces withdraw.

Some doubt that the ANA will be able to offer the level of resistance required after the British and American forces leave the country, taking with them the fleet of helicopters and hundreds of armoured vehicles that few IEDs can penetrate. The ISAF forces will also take with them a huge logistics network, including powerful eyes in the sky and world-class hospital facilities.

Afghan National Army (ANA) troops are inspected by Brigadier Shenin Shah. Picture: Greg Macvean

Afghan National Army (ANA) troops are inspected by Brigadier Shenin Shah. Picture: Greg Macvean

But Lieutenant Colonel Ben Wrench says there is huge optimism in the country, as the improvement in the ANA coincided with weakening of the insurgents: “What I truly believe is that the ANA will be able to do the job in hand. They are far greater in numbers and in resource than the insurgents and they are improving rapidly. The training methods employed are now very advanced and they are streaming through the ANA, meaning they now have a strong team of their own instructors in all areas.

“This is crucial, as it speeds up the whole process and means the ANA can take a huge step forward as a professional force. This is happening while the enemy is becoming depleted. It is true to say that the ANA will not have the resources available to ISAF at present, but they will have what is required to look after their own country. I have no doubt of that.” He adds: “We all suffered a great blow with the death of Captain Barrie, a great man and a great soldier, but we are focused on the job in hand.”

Captain Alistair Cuthbertson, a senior training officer in the BAG, said 1 Scots’ duties involved training in weapons, signals, counter-IED methods and medical training. He said: “A lot of the guys were here before in 2010 and they all believe that massive progress has been made. It’s not just a PR exercise, as the difference in the ANA is astounding. Our soldiers were over here training ANA troops in real grassroots methods but now they have moved up a level and they are training instructors. The ANA are becoming effective in training their own soldiers. They are now the ones who are executing the operations themselves, with our soldiers taking a back seat, observing things. That is the way it has to be at this stage.

“Training and planning and every activity that the ANA do is advised at this stage, so this is a very important role that is being performed. The ANA are becoming much less reliant on ISAF for doing operational activities. They are now planning and executing operations on a brigade level, which can involve more than 1,000 soldiers and requires a huge amount of tactical awareness and planning.”

Despite being just 19, ANA soldier Mohamed Omar has already risen to sergeant during three years in the force. He was sent on an 18-month course in Explosive Ordnance Disposal and is now a qualified instructor, teaching scores of his counterparts how to dismantle IEDs. The ANA now has many Route Clearance Companies led by certified soldiers. Only 30 per cent of those who take the course pass, which is in line with British troops.

He says: “I have taken part in eight large operations and I am not scared because I know what I am doing. The training was very good and I would guess that I have dealt with at least 80 bombs. I pass on the knowledge to other soldiers and I think the team I have now is very effective. The ANA is not what it used to be. We are strong.”

Like every single Afghan soldier will say if asked, Omar says more needs to be spent on resourcing the ANA: “I think we are running at about 70 per cent of what we need and we need more resources. We need more equipment and we need the money to keep coming after ISAF leave us to fight for ourselves.”

The ANA is now equipped with Vallons, metal detectors that probe for IEDs, and they have Mark 9 EOD suits, the heavy-duty equipment seen in The Hurt Locker. Lance Corporal Stephen McLaughlin, from Rutherglen, was on Herrick 12, a six-month tour in 2009/10. He says that, on his previous tour, ANA soldiers would refuse to use Vallons. He said: “We were meant to be training them but they refused to go to point with the Vallon, which was defeating the purpose.

“The difference is incredible now, as they take a pride in what they are doing. In many respects, Afghans are already better than British soldiers at finding bombs because it is their home terrain and they tune into changes in the ground quicker than us. The things they pick up instinctively are amazing. They just sense that something is afoot and now they have the means to do something about it.”

Explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) instructor Staff Sergeant Scott Docherty says the ANA soldiers have a professional attitude: “They see this job as important for their country and a good career. Lots of the men are teenagers but they grow up fast in Afghanistan because they have to. These guys are incredibly brave. Some of them insist on taking the lead despite the obvious dangers involved. They have become quite fearless.”

Route clearance company (RCC) advisor Sergeant Ian Woods, from Paisley, says: “Afghans now have a presence right at the front of patrols and they can do it for themselves. They can operate the equipment and clear the roads fast. They have evolved a bit too, in that they don’t want to detonate charges in the road because they want the road to be preserved.”

Colour Sergeant Wullie Mair, from Stonehaven, trains ANA men to fire mortars, which can be used to back up raids on insurgent strongholds. A team led by Mair and Sergeant Dougie Dempster takes three weeks to train one Kandak before another Kandak streams in. Their current focus is training the men in the ANA who will train those below them. He said: “Mortars aren’t key kit for the kind of fight the ANA will face, but they could be very effective in certain situations. If used wrongly they can have a disastrous effect. We show them how three-man teams operate and how to find the correct range. They tend to take to it quickly and have a good attitude to learning. They are starting to look the part. “The men we are training now are very capable of running mortar teams and they are passing on their skills. The interpreters we have here are very important and they are helping get the message across.”

Around 1,000 people gathered on Thursday at the funeral of Captain Walter Barrie at Glencorse Kirk. His son Calum, 15, told mourners: “Today I come to say goodbye to an amazing father, but also my best friend. Thank you, dad, for all the memories.”

Capt Barrie, 41, was described as a “doting and amazing father” and a “great man” by his wife, Sonia.