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Canadian Navy personnel in training.

Photo courtesy of the author

Canadian Navy personnel in training.

Canada’s Contribution to the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan: A Sailor’s Experience

by Commander Hugues Canuel

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Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan was concluded more than a year ago, alternatively celebrated as a great and noble achievement and decried as a wasteful expenditure of lives and resources by different segments of the media.1 

Much less coverage was allotted to the simultaneous effort undertaken by the Canadian Forces (CF) to mount a training mission in the Kabul region as troops were being withdrawn from the Kandahar province. Operation Attention would become central to the country’s commitment to the NATO effort in Afghanistan and all elements of the CF were called upon to provide personnel in support of that endeavour.

I was deployed as part of the stand-up of Operation Attention, Canada’s contribution to the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan. From July 2011 to March 2012, I witnessed the tremendous challenges involved in the transition of the Canadian mission in that war-torn country, from a combat role in the south, to that of training the Afghan National Security Forces (ANST) in the Kabul region. This short article aims to provide a sailor’s perspective on the many dimensions of the operation based on his recent experience in various advisory and staff duties with the UN-mandated, NATO-led coalition.      
As the debate on the future of the allied effort continued, I was assigned to the contingent provided by the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) during that pivotal period.  Such experience cannot be presented as typical of the hundreds of individuals that eventually deployed for Operation Attention in 2011-2012. Nevertheless, it was representative of the smaller group employed in senior positions within the headquarters of the NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan (NTM-A), whether as staff officers or advisors to units of the ANSF. This article will attempt to provide an insight into this recent experience, addressing those practical and procedural aspects that may not have received as much coverage in the mainstream media. First, however, it may be appropriate to lay out some of the background to the mission and its rapid evolution through the course of the rotation.


Operation Attention designates the Canadian Contribution Training Mission – Afghanistan (CCTM-A), in which most personnel are assigned to NTM-A, the training pillar of the UN-mandated, NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF).  NTM-A delivers training and professional development to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and its subordinated Afghan Air Force (AAF), the Afghan National Police (ANP), as well as the various ministries involved in the security sector.  Such work is conducted alongside that of ISAF’s two other main pillars, IJC – ISAF Joint Command, responsible for operations – and ISAF SOF, which coordinates both the employment of coalition Special Operations Forces, and the development of such capability within the ANA and ANP.2

As CCTM-A grew in strength to about 925 all ranks through the later half of 2011, Mission Elements (ME) were established in different camps distributed throughout the capital region, as well as two satellite teams in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and Herat in the west.3 The headquarters of NTM-A are accommodated in Camp Eggers.  This secured compound, named after US Army Captain Daniel W. Eggers, who was killed near Kandahar on 29 May 2004, is located in the capital’s downtown area next to ISAF Heaquarters (ISAF HQ) and the seat of the Afghan ministries.4 

The Canadian ‘footprint’ in Camp Eggers grew through the summer of 2011 from a dozen personnel to nearly one hundred (including all military and civilian police personnel), while the NTM-A structure itself was quickly changing. Such evolution was required to meet the changing focus of the allied mission.  Formally activated on 21 November 2009, NTM-A is mandated to "… support the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as it generates and sustains the Afghan national security forces, develops leaders, and establishes enduring capacity in order to enable accountable Afghan-led security." This required an initial emphasis upon recruitment and expansion, but priorities have since evolved to the areas of instruction skills ("train the trainer"), leadership, literacy, accountability and institutional development.5

Commander Hugues Canuel in Afghanistan. Kabul is in the background. This sailor does not appear to be pointing to open water…

Photo courtesy of the author

Commander Hugues Canuel in Afghanistan. Kabul is in the background. This sailor does not appear to be pointing to open water…

This evolving focus greatly affected the Canadian mission during the initial rotation of Operation Attention, especially for those personnel employed in Camp Eggers.  Senior officers and non-commissioned members (NCMs) were integrated in the NTM-A command team, while others served in staff positions or in advisory duties with elements of the Afghan security forces. Junior operators and technicians were also employed, with the movement teams taking coalition representatives through the streets of Kabul on a daily basis. Several of these individuals would eventually be reassigned during their tour in order to meet NTM-A’s evolving priorities, as well as the increasing maturity of the ANSF formations, including myself, who went from advisor to successive staff appointments. This path provided a unique insight into the various components of the NATO training mission, allowing me to work with elements of both the ANP and the ANA and making for a remarkable tour that shaped the observations formulated below.      

Pre-Deployment Training

Such flexibility in employment while in theatre was greatly facilitated by the short but effective period of pre-deployment training required for all personnel assigned to Operation Attention. While a joint mission, the Canadian Army is the Primary Force Generator for this operation, responsible for the coordinated generation of those CF elements meant to be employed by the Commander Canadian Expeditionary Forces Command (since then consolidated in the Canadian Joint Operations Command).6 For this inaugural rotation (Roto 0), the army assigned force generation duties to the Commander Land Forces Western Area (LFWA), home of the 1st Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group (1CMBG) at Canadian Forces Base Edmonton.  As the designated Mounting Unit responsible to generate the mission’s National Command and Support Element (NCSE) as well as a variety of other sub-elements, 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (3PPCLI) took a leading role in conducting the required pre-deployment training.      

This task was most challenging in two ways. First, the deployment of Canadians was staggered over the course of several months in order to facilitate the in-flow of hundreds of personnel newly assigned to NTM-A. This commenced in April 2011 with the most senior leadership, including Major-General Michael Day – assigned the role of Commander CCTM-A as the senior Canadian deployed and that of NTM-A Deputy Commander-Army (responsible for the training and fielding of ANA units) – and the out-going Commanding Officer of 3PPCLI, Colonel Peter Dawe, who would be established in Camp Phoenix with the bulk of the NSCE staff to fill his duties as Deputy Commander CCTM-A.7 This, in turn, signified that training would also be staggered as required for the successive waves of personnel that deployed from May to October 2011 under the guidance of 3PPCLI individuals who were themselves getting ready to leave.       

One must praise the tremendous effort put forward by LFWA and 3PPCLI authorities in coordinating pre-deployment training under such strenuous conditions.8  This was especially true of the program conducted by Warrant Officer "Chuck" Cote in May-June 2011 for a disparate group of nearly 100 personnel of all ranks and trades from across the CF, with a wide range of backgrounds in terms of overseas deployments and combat experience. There is little doubt that the team achieved the best results to be expected given the many unknowns that still surrounded the mission at the time and uncertainties as to the employment of those personnel nominally designated for advisory duties and staff appointments at NTM-A.

As a naval officer with no combat arms background or prior experience in a theatre of operations such as Afghanistan, I most appreciated the training related to those common skills and general awareness required to survive – literally – during the mission.  Much was gained from weapons handling, combat first aid, and convoy procedures. Cultural awareness instruction was also beneficial. Some commented prior to the deployment about the need for more structured training for those bound for advisory duties, but, following actual experience garnered as an advisor, I am of the opinion that such requirement may not be germane, at least for senior naval officers and NCMs. The mix of skills and experience that such individuals bring to the operation is likely sufficient to discharge their responsibilities effectively as there is no single model that can be applied to all situations. Advisors, especially those serving at the ministry level or in the superior headquarters of ANSF formations alongside very senior Afghan officials, must adapt their style and approach to the situation at hand and respond positively to the personalities of the individuals to whom they are they are assigned, rather than attempt to impose some pre-formulated answer to the problems at hand.   

Major-General Michael Day hands over command of the Canadian Contribution Training Mission – Afghanistan (CCTM-A) to Major-General Jim Ferron in Kabul, Afghanistan, 24 May 2012.

DND photo ISX2012-0013 by Warrant Officer Jim Ryall

Major-General Michael Day hands over command of the Canadian Contribution Training Mission – Afghanistan (CCTM-A) to Major-General Jim Ferron in Kabul, Afghanistan, 24 May 2012.

Experience as Advisor

The Afghan National Civil Order Police is one of several components of the ANP.  Somewhat similar in concept to a European gendarmerie, ANCOP has a large role in counterinsurgency operations, tasked to maintain the rule of law and order, by utilizing proportionate armed capability. This force is organized geographically into regional brigades and battalions to provide support to other elements of the uniformed police and/or to operate jointly with the ANA as required for specific operations. ANCOP units seek to restore and maintain civil order in designated areas, especially during sensitive or dangerous disturbances and riots, conducting operations that require a higher level of training and tactics, as well as special capabilities, such as serving as a mobile quick reaction force.9 

ANCOP had been the focus of considerable effort on the part of NTM-A since standing up in 2009, so that it was one of the better developed elements of the ANP by the summer of 2011. It was rapidly realized that the Canadian naval contingent assigned to ANCOP headquarters for Operation Attention could be better employed in view of more pressing requirements. Most of these individuals were reassigned to other such priorities, save for the advisors to the G1 (Personnel) and G4 (Logistics), as it was deemed that they continued to make a valuable contribution in these areas where the police force still experienced major difficulties in terms of policy making and operational planning. 

Originally appointed as Advisor to the ANCOP Chief of Staff, I was also transferred after only two months in theatre, but this brief experience nevertheless provided a valuable insight into the ANP and the operations of the Ministry of the Interior (MoI). Of note, one of the better references with which personnel assigned advisory duties with the ANP and the ministry should be familiar is the Afghan MoI Advisor Guide referred to in the previous endnote. Although somewhat dated in terms of the NTM-A organization and structure, it still provides valuable practical guidance to prospective advisors as, well as an excellent introduction to the police elements of the larger ANSF.

Experience as Staff Officer

My next assignment was as Special Police Staff Officer to the Assistant Commanding General – Special Police and Protection Force (ACG SPPF), a newly established ‘one-star’ organization under the NTM-A Deputy Commander-Police (DCOM P).  Advisors to regular police elements are assigned to the Assistant Commanding General – Police Development (ACG PD) and ISAF SOF provides those involved with special police elements. ACG SPPF was instead tasked with providing force development and integration support to various elements, such as the Afghan General Directorate Police Special Units (GDPSU).  This component of the ANP provides specialist tactical capabilities to support counterinsurgent and counternarcotics operations, as well as activities against organized crime through the provision of sophisticated capabilities, such crisis response units of the SWAT model, covert intelligence and surveillance, and close personal protection for government figures and judicial authorities.10       

Symbolic of the dynamic evolution of the NTM-A structure, ACG SPPF was dissolved in November 2011, at which point I was again transferred to a new entity, the Deputy Commander-Special Operations Forces (DCOM SOF).11 This one-star organization, reporting directly to Commander NTM-A, came into existence as a result of the decision to centralize support within NTM-A for special elements of both the ANP (GDPSU and the Afghan Local Police – ALP) and the ANA (where all such units are centralized under the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command – ANASOC).12 Within DCOM SOF, I remained involved with force integration, dealing with questions related to force structure (through the management of unit tashkil, the Afghan manning document somewhat similar to the western Table of Organization and Equipment) and force development in terms of seeking coalition funds for equipment and infrastructure. 

This last assignment proved most challenging, especially as ANASOC was one the last elements of the ANSF still growing towards its final composition as envisioned for the post-2014 period. I had to develop an in-depth familiarity with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and ANA authorities and structures, reach out to the staffs of the NTM-A Deputy Commander-Army (DCOM A) and the Deputy Commander-Air (DCOM Air) as they were both involved in ANASOC development, and very quickly familiarize myself with the ANASOC units and their assigned coalition advisory teams.13 Such knowledge was essential to discharging duties mainly concerned with the rationalization of the structural and equipment needs for both police and army special forces, and it required repeated appearances in front of the various boards and senior authorities whose support was essential to secure the requisite coalition funds in support of such initiatives.       

These costs are accounted for through the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF), which "… provides funding to grow, train, equip, and sustain the ANSF."14 This is the tool whereby coalition contributions are budgeted and expanded upon in the broad categories of infrastructure, equipment, training, and sustainment.  ASFF was approved to nearly $12(US) billion for Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 but will be dramatically reduced in the forthcoming years as the growth of ANSF elements will cease in 2012 and the provision of new equipment, infrastructure, and so on should be completed by 2014.  This greatly complicates the task of standing up ANASOC and completing the equipping of special police units, since justifying expenditures for new projects came under very close scrutiny in the first months of 2012, a trend that is likely to endure. Nevertheless, the growth and training of Afghan special police and army units are central to the ISAF campaign plan to successfully achieve its mission in an insurgency environment. DCOM SOF will likely remain at the forefront of the NTM-A effort through the next two years, making it a great challenge for those employed in that most dynamic element of the training mission.

Members of Malalai Company, the all-female Afghan National Army Officer Candidate Course, take their graduating officer’s oath at Kabul, 23 November 2011.

DND photo AT2011-T029-06 by Master Corporal Chris Ward

Members of Malalai Company, the all-female Afghan National Army Officer Candidate Course, take their graduating officer’s oath at Kabul, 23 November 2011.

Experience as Camp Senior

As outlined earlier, most Operation Attention personnel are employed in different ISAF/NTM-A organizations and dispersed through various camps as required to enable the NATO mission.  Nevertheless, they also respond to the Canadian chain of command, most often through the establishment of formal Mission Elements.  The situation was slightly different in Camp Eggers, whereby, despite the presence of a large Canadian contingent, personnel were working in such a wide array of functions that they did not operate as an ME per se. Nevertheless, a ‘Camp Senior’ was appointed in order to coordinate Canadian activities in the compound, as well as to serve as a liaison with both the camp authorities as the designated "Senior Canadian Representative," and the national chain, through the NCSE in Camp Phoenix. I had the privilege of assuming this role after two months in theatre, and, although an all-consuming secondary duty, this additional responsibility proved a most rewarding challenge.

As I was not attributed the formal powers and authority of a designated Commanding Officer, I approached this particular duty very much as I would have as the Executive Officer (XO) of a ship deployed at sea. Much of my time was dedicated to circulating information, from the NCSE to the Eggers Canadians and vice versa in terms of conveying policy decisions, upcoming national events/visits, the coordination of material and logistical support, and so on. I worked closely with the senior Canadian officers in the DCOM P and DCOM A chains to identify those opportunities to reassign personnel to new duties, leveraging their skills and experience to place them in positions of best interest for the Canadian mission. I was repeatedly involved in facilitating administrative and disciplinary processes as required by NCSE, ranging from alternate dispute resolution to the coordination of medical and compassionate repatriations, the administration of the Canadian Forces Personnel Appraisal System (CFPAS), and staffing recommendations for honours and awards. 

Another area of interest was that of morale and welfare. Maintaining a coherent, positive team spirit was challenging at times as the Canadians were not employed as a single contingent. This made the coordination of social activities and Canadian-specific events difficult to arrange, but nonetheless worthy of the effort in order to sustain personnel through this lengthy deployment. I dedicated much time in reminding Canadians of the requirement to maintain the proper dress and deportment, as well as overt enthusiasm towards the mission, as we came to form the second largest national contingent in Camp Eggers. This also led me to volunteer to chair the Senior National Representatives Committee, wherein I interacted closely with agents from the twenty-nine contributing nations represented in the compound and involved in facilitating liaison with camp authorities in order to resolve quality of life issues, services available to personnel, cultural sensitivities, and so on.     


One may wonder whether a naval officer or NCM is truly suitable for employment as an advisor or a staff officer involved in the development of the security forces of a land-locked country in the throes of an insurgency. The performance of the RCN contingent deployed for Operation Attention Roto 0 put such question to rest.  Subject to gaining the ‘survival skills’ discussed in the pre-deployment training section, naval officers and senior NCMs have the hands-on leadership, detailed planning, and administrative abilities required to make a valuable contribution in a multitude of roles.  Short of advising on actual police and army tactics, these individuals are certainly capable of providing worthy advice to senior Afghan officers employed in formation headquarters and ministerial positions on matters of strategic and operational planning, budgeting, personnel policies, and so on. Appointments at NTM-A headquarters require those same abilities and staff skills as would be necessary in similar employment in service or joint headquarters.           

Despite many frustrations and the uncertainties that surrounded the first months of the mission, Operation Attention turned out to be a remarkable and highly rewarding experience. Canada assumed a very important role during this initial rotation and achieved remarkable strategic effect within the coalition and among the ANSF.  Such influence is bound to grow as troop-contributing nations reduce their footprint in the forthcoming years, and Canadians continue to leverage their professionalism, both as advisors and staff officers throughout the NTM-A structure. Although the drudgery of the work in Camp Eggers may remind one of the frustrations routinely encountered in headquarters at home, it is important to remind oneself that such contribution remains at the heart of the Canadian training mandate in order to facilitate the successful conclusion of the NATO mission.

Commander Hugues Canuel, CD, is currently a member of the Directing Staff at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto. He was deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan from July 2011 to March 2012. The views expressed therein are his alone; they should not be construed as those of NATO nor those of the Canadian government or the Department of National Defence.

Afghan National Army soldiers perform the Attan, the national dance of Afghanistan, during a graduation ceremony at the Kabul Military Training Centre (KMTC).

DND photo HS2011-T021-12 by Master Corporal Chris Ward

Afghan National Army soldiers perform the Attan, the national dance of Afghanistan, during a graduation ceremony at the Kabul Military Training Centre (KMTC).


  1. The CF deployed to Kandahar under the guise of Operation Athena. This deployment was only closed down in December 2011 as the Mission Transition Task Force remained in place to conclude Canadian activities at the Kandahar Airfield but combat operations had officially ceased in July. For a backgrounder on Operation Athena, see .

  2. On the ISAF command structure, see .

  3. The Canadian mission has a "legislated personnel cap" of 950 CF members, but numbers of deployed personnel at any given time varies, based upon operational requirements. For a detailed breakdown of Mission Elements as of 24 May 2012, see  Note that the Herat ME was stood down earlier this year, and government announced that a further 100 CF personnel would be repatriated without replacement over the course of the summer 2012. 

  4. See the US Department of Defense Welcome Packet - Camp Eggers, available on line at .

  5. On the change of focus that occurred through 2011, see two articles penned by the former commander of NTM-A, Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell: "Building the Security Force That Won’t Leave," in Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 62 (3rd Quarter 2011), pp. 74-80, available at; and "Helping the Afghans Help Themselves," in Proceedings (July 2011): pp. 32-37, available at .

  6. The new command is actually a merger of the separate entities that previously directed and supported missions overseas and operations at home. See DND backgrounder on "Canadian Forces Transformation: New Operational Command and Control Structure," available at .

  7. Major-General Day was later appointed Deputy Commanding General – Operations, making him the Deputy Commander of NTM-A with training responsibilities for all components of the ANSF. He was replaced in that role on 24 May 2012 by Major General Jim Ferron. See DND News Release at

  8. Given the scale of the task, many personnel also had to conduct individual training at the Canadian Peace Support Training Centre in Kingston, Ontario.

  9. NTM-A/CSTC-A, Afghan Ministry of Interior (MoI) Advisor Guide, Version 1.0, dated 9 May 2011, p. 1-4 and 1-5, at http://ntm-a.coméwordpress2/wp-.content/uploads/2011/07/Afghan_MoI_Advisor_Guide_Version_1.0_9_May_2011.pdf .

  10. Ibid., pp. 1-6.

  11. The mandate of DCOM SOF is cited in the DND Fact Sheet NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan found at .

  12. For a short overview of the nascent ANASOC, see US Department of Defense, Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, issued April 2012, pp. 24-25. Available at .   

  13. Including another body of advisors provided by the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command – Afghanistan (CFSOCC-A). This US entity is not part of NTM-A. Among other duties, it provides Special Forces elements that advise and train the Afghan Local Police, as well as components of ANASOC. For some (admittedly limited) information on this command, see

  14. US Department of Defense, Report on Progress, p. 44.