As Canadians were heading to the polls at the beginning of May, the first soldiers taking part in Canada's new training mission in Afghanistan were already on their way to Kabul.

A small team of officers is on the ground there, now, preparing to welcome the first 150 Canadian military advisers by the end of the month.

Those troops will quickly be sent to two bases in and around Kabul to begin the massive job of training and building the Afghan National Army.

In a first look at details of the training mission, Col. Peter Dawe, deputy commander of the mission, talked to CBC News about the new effort announced last year as the replacement to Canada's combat mission in Kandahar.

That mission officially ends in July, but it will take several months to withdraw all the troops and equipment that have built up in southern Afghanistan since Canadians arrived in 2005.

'Frankly, you couldn't find better trained and better skilled individuals to fill these advisory roles.'—Col. Peter Dawe

Dawe said it will differ significantly from the combat Canadians have come to associate with operations in Afghanistan.

"There is zero offensive combat action involved in the mandate here whatsoever," Dawe said in an interview from Kabul. "We're here to defend ourselves and to do our job and there is no question of looking for a fight or to pursue an offensive action per se."

Dawe provided a comprehensive rundown of the military's plans for the training job, which will begin in earnest in November:

  • The contingent will be 950 soldiers strong, based mostly in and around Kabul.
  • Roughly 200 soldiers will form Dawe's headquarters, and work in a command and support unit that will administer the mission.
  • Another 250 will be based at the Kabul Military Training Centre, a key Afghan training facility near the capital's downtown core.
  • About 150 Canadian troops will find themselves at a field training centre on the eastern outskirts of Kabul, and 50 more will be at a similar facility south of the capital.
  • In total, 750 Canadian troops will work as trainers, including roughly 50 soldiers at a far-flung outpost in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, and another 25 in the far west of the country near Herat.

"It's a huge effort, all with a view to ensuring that the Afghan national security forces work towards this objective of a professional trustworthy, viable, self-reliant, self-sustaining force in the long run," Dawe said.

Wide array of training

The depth and breadth of the effort is, even to seasoned soldiers such as Dawe, almost overwhelming.

Canadian military trainers will act as advisers to Afghan soldiers who will train new troops and junior leaders. The trainers will advise Afghan generals and corps commanders as well as staff officers inside the Afghan Ministry of Defence.

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Col. Peter Dawe, seen in a 2010 file photo, is deputy commander of the Canadian training mission. (Canadian Press)

Specialist advisers will work at a counter-insurgency training school, at a military medical school, a flight school and at a communications and signals school. More specialists will train Afghan NCOs and officers, ensuring the Afghan army has qualified and skilled sergeants and lieutenants.

"It's quite the vast array of skill sets," Dawe said. "We're really talking about advising from the very lowest level in terms of private soldier training all the way to advising corps commanders ... to ensure that at the end of the day what we're working towards is an institution which is self-reliant, professional, which is earning the trust of the Afghan people."

Dawe said the Canadian contingent is considerably more "top-heavy" than a combat unit of the same size would be.

The lion's share of the Canadian advisers are experienced sergeants and warrant officers, as well as lieutenants and captains.

"The average adviser is a highly-skilled individual," Dawe said. "The average sergeant or young warrant officer is here on his third or fourth tour [of Afghanistan] and has seen a significant amount of combat action in the south.

"Frankly, you couldn't find better trained and better skilled individuals to fill these advisory roles especially on this first rotation," he said. "We got a wealth of experience, especially at that rank level."

Roughly 400 of the trainers will be drawn from the ranks of the Third Battalion of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, the first unit Canada deployed to Afghanistan in February 2002. The remainder of the trainers will be drawn from military units across the country. They will include soldiers of all ranks, from private to colonel, and will be drawn from the army, navy and air force.

Risks don't end with combat role

The trainers will, for the most part, live at the bases they will work at, eliminating the need for soldiers to travel dangerous roads between NATO bases.

"Afghanistan is a pretty tough environment and there are many threats and the insurgents are still pretty much part of the equation," Dawe said. "There are potential threats out there, so we're not kidding ourselves, here; this is not like working in Wainwright [Alta.], or in St. Jean [Que.].

"This is Afghanistan and there are many challenges and certainly risks."

Apart from the ongoing and omnipresent security challenges, Canadian advisers will also have to confront the challenge of professionalizing a military that has little professional experience. Afghans have been fighting for decades — perhaps centuries — but nearly always as members of ad hoc and rag-tag units of part-time warriors.

In addition, many Afghans are illiterate and uneducated, further complicating the effort to develop and enhance the Afghan National Army.

Dawe said literacy training is a key part of developing the Afghan force — one that will have a profound effect, well beyond the generation and creation of military capability.

"This has a significant societal effect. It gives people self-esteem. It gives people a viable alternative to the insurgency and I think it gives people hope," he said.