Canadians train Afghans in the art of demolition

Ethan Baron, Canwest News Service Tuesday, November 11, 2008

KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- If the Afghan National Army is to ever take over full military duties for the country as planned by the international coalition, they have to know how to blow things up.

The Canadian Forces have just embarked on their first-ever, demolitions-training program for the Afghan army. Canadian soldiers are teaching Afghan troops to use plastic explosives, so they can destroy mines and roadside bombs, and move earth and stone to construct fortified emplacements and bases.

"They're surprisingly confident," said Canadian Capt. Jeff Allen of 2 Combat Engineer Regiment of Petawawa, Ont. "Sometimes a little too confident."

Afghan army soldiers have a reputation as hard-charging fighters, but are not always familiar with the 21st century art of war. They may blast away with their Kalashnikovs on full automatic, when single shots to conserve ammunition are more appropriate. They've been known to rush off to battle without making sure there's fuel in the tanks of their pickup trucks.

"There's no shortage of bravery. They all have a pretty mad hate on for the Taliban," Allen said. "Sometimes it's just a matter of reigning them in."

And when dealing with powerful C-4 explosive, discipline is crucial, as errors can bring catastrophe. The three-week training program is intended to "articulate the safety aspect" of demolitions work, Allen said.

"It'll also give them . . . an appreciation of the power of it," Allen said.

Education starts with the basics. For Afghan army soldiers, a measuring tape is a foreign object, but it's an essential tool for cutting fuses to the right length, so the explosives don't blow up too early, or too late. The fuse is cord filled with gunpowder, attached to the detonator for the explosive, and ignited by pulling a small handle on an ignition device. The length of the fuse determines the amount of time between pulling the ignition handle and the blast.

"In order to do a detailed calculation of how long a fuse is, you have to be able to use a tape measure," Allen said.

In an area of dusty wasteland where the training is taking place outside the coalition's Kandahar Airfield base, Chief Warrant Officer Craig Grant of 31 Combat Engineer Regiment in St. Thomas, Ont., taught the Afghan troops to use the tape measure, getting them to lay out lengths of fuse on a board, and employ the tape for cutting the fuse to a length that would give three minutes' time between fuse ignition and explosion.

The Canadians teach the Afghans through interpreters, which slows the process down. But the end result is the same as when dealing with a rookie Canadian army engineer, said Canadian Master Cpl. Marcus Wisotzki, of 33 Combat Engineer Regiment in Ottawa.

"It's really no different, other than the language barrier . . . than it would be training our own guys," Wisotzki said.

Though the Afghans may lack some modern warfare skills, the Canadians treat them as brothers, Allen said.

"We don't talk down to these guys," Allen said. "These guys have been fighting since they were kids."

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