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French mission focused on training Afghanistan troops

The French soldier killed in Afghanistan on Monday belonged to a highly skilled team training Afghan soldiers. The French specialists focus on helping the local army operate independently, often under extremely difficult circumstances.


Islamabad, Pakistan

French Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLT) are small groups of highly experienced soldiers working in the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan. Their mission is to train Afghan soldiers so that the army will ultimately operate independently.

It was in the Anasay valley north-east of Kabul that a French soldier belonging to such an OMLT unit lost his life. His death brings to 37 the number of French troops killed in Afghanistan since the beginning of the NATO mission in 2001.

There are just under 300 French army mentors fighting alongside their Afghan National Army (ANA) colleagues in an effort to bring security and stability to this conflict-wrecked nation.

These French soldiers are combat-seasoned men working in groups of six or seven under the supervision of an officer.

These small teams go into action with up to 2,000 ANA volunteers, giving them "on the job" training in the rudiments of modern tactical infantry warfare.

France began participating in OMLT missions in 2007 in the region east of Kabul in Afghanistan.

Since then, these specialised teams have become fully integrated into the ANA's 201 Corps, fighting Taliban insurgents in the Surobi and Kapisa provinces, to the north and east of the capital Kabul.

Different approach to waging war

OMLTs are also responsible for liaising between their Afghan colleagues and the overall NATO mission.

But this cooperation is often rendered difficult not only by the language barrier, but above all by a completely different approach to waging war.

These experienced French soldiers are often frustrated when trying to teach sophisticated infantry tactics, as the ANA commanders would rather do full-frontal attacks without the element of surprise.

Yet despite the differences, one ANA brigade mentored by these OMLT groups was recognised last year as ready to operate independently of their French mentors - a first since the beginning of the NATO mission in 2001.

It is an encouraging step towards the complete independence of the Afghan army across the country.

Such autonomy is a central goal for Western nations embroiled in the Afghan counter-insurgency war and is a central plank of NATO's strategy in the country. NATO forces aim to help build an army capable of holding down and defeating the Taliban by itself.

US President Barack Obama has said that a fully independent and effective ANA must be realised before US troops can be withdrawn from Afghanistan.

Under-paid and under-equipped, and the insurgents pay more…

But, for the moment, the ANA is too disorganised, its soldiers too inexperienced, badly equipped and not just under-paid but in many cases not paid at all. Wages destined for the troops often 'disappear'.

The average wage of an ANA soldier is 150 dollars per month. The insurgents pay twice as much as this for just a week's service or even to take part in only one ambush.

Ergo the high desertion rate in the ANA, which was estimated at 20% in 2009.

And the knock-on effect from the desertions is the OMLT’s lack of confidence in their Afghan colleagues.

OMLTs can be forgiven for worrying about providing tactical training when some 10% of ANA soldiers are thought to be pro-Taliban, if not actually Taliban infiltrators.

These problems may be behind France's decision to stick with the the principal of using OMLTs rather than pursuing more direct aggressive options in its dealings in Afghanistan. France has however augmented the OMLT deployment by sending 150 'Gendarmes' (policemen) to work alongside and help train the Afghan police force.

In contrast, the USA has favoured the more aggressive option of boosting their combat troop numbers by 30,000.


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