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By Mr R. Earp

Towards the end of our tour, Lieutenant AH delivered a revision lesson on the whole Counter Improvised Explosive Device package that had been presented to the Officer Cadets the previous week.  This lesson was not on the programme but the Afghan officers had identified that some additional revision was required before the cadets sat the test.   His lesson happened to coincide with the final visit of the British Senior National Officer (SNO) in Afghanistan who had been in the country for over 12 months.

Into the lesson walked two Brigadiers, a number of Colonels and various other Officers from Afghanistan, the United Kingdom and other nations.  AH didn’t miss a beat – he continued confidently and articulately.  He had a combined class of both male and female Officer Cadets who were fully engaged in the lesson and were asking a lot of questions.  Lieutenant AH could have been delivering a lesson at The Royal Military College Duntroon, Australia, The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, United Kingdom or at The Officer Cadet School, New Zealand. The official party, and in particular the departing British SNO, was greatly encouraged and impressed by the standard of instruction and interaction they had observed.  This lesson was one of the defining experiences of our tour.


The Afghan National Army Officer Academy (ANAOA)

The Afghan National Army Officer Academy was created to select and prepare quality platoon leaders, Warrior Officers (war fighters) for specialised training within the Afghan National Army (ANA).  The Academy opened in 2013, is modelled on the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, led by Afghans and mentored by a coalition of Partner Nations including the United Kingdom, Australia, Denmark, Norway and New Zealand.  Basic Infantry Tactics have been adopted as the medium for training delivery with a focus on ethical and values-based leadership.  The Academy consists of a Headquarters element, three male training Kandaks (Battalions), one female training Tolay (Company) and a number of specialist training wings.  The program is delivered over three sixteen-week blocks, Junior, Intermediate and Senior Terms with the first class of 249 graduating as Officers in the ANA in September 2014.

I led the Mentor Team attached to Badder Tolay (Company), 1st Kandak over the period May 14 to Feb 15 working alongside a British Captain, an Aussie Captain, a Danish Warrant Officer and a British Sergeant. Our mentee’s included the Officer Commanding (a Captain), a Company Sergeant Major (a Senior Sergeant), three Blook (Platoon) Commanders, three Bridmals (Senior Non-Commissioned Officers), a Human Resources and a Logistics Bridmal.  The advantage our mentoring team had was that, other than the British Sergeant, we remained together for two terms providing consistency and continuity for the full nine months, unlike many of the other Tolay mentoring teams.  We were supported by three Afghan interpreters who, over time, became indispensable members of our mentoring team and remained with us for the duration of our deployment.  In our Second Term we were also joined by two female mentors, a British Captain and Sergeant from the female Blook that consisted of nine female Officer Cadets, an Afghan Blook Commander and a Bridmal, both female.

Mentoring, or the act of being a mentor, was new to many of us and not necessarily a concept that everyone understood.  Very quickly, it became apparent that there were many different ideas of what a mentor is, what mentoring should be about, and how it should be conducted.

It quickly became apparent to me that a mentor’s role is primarily one of advising and supporting, not assuming the mentees responsibilities.  The mentee is responsible for their success or failure, not the mentor.  This recognised that mentees needed to be motivated and receptive to mentoring in order for the mission to be successful.  Some of the mentors struggled with this concept, concerned that if their mentee failed it would reflect poorly on them.  Hence, it was essential to establish a strong relationship with each mentee.  Based on trust, this relationship had to come above all else including our desire to make changes immediately because of our previous military experience.


Our Approach

After arriving at ANAOA we realised that, although we had received mentoring training in our home nations and at Sandhurst, we were largely unprepared for what lay ahead.  However, we knew that we needed to develop an overriding approach to our task in order to bind the Tolay together and ensure that our efforts were consistent and deliberate.  With this in mind, and remembering that our mission was to mentor the ANAOA Instructors and not their Officer Cadets, we adopted the following principles:

  • We assumed that our mentees were trained and competent and that we would treat them as such, regardless of whether this was true or not.
  • We were role models and our conduct and bearing needed to reflect this.
  • We would do things their way, not OUR WAY whenever possible – a concept we later coined ‘Afghanising’.
  • It was okay to let our mentees fail, however, we should be consistent, and this would be the exception and not the rule. This became a source of friction with my first British Commanding Officer Mentor.
  • Our mentees should choose who delivers lessons and how they would be delivered – it was our role to advise and support them in the preparation and delivery but not to take the lesson for them.
  • We would work as a proactive team supporting each other so that our mentees were comfortable in dealing with any of us, regardless of rank or nationality, not just one specific mentor. Further to this, no one had a monopoly on good ideas and we would share our mentoring experiences to the benefit of the whole team.
  • We needed to manage our expectations as to what we could actually achieve with our mentees in nine months; in contrast our time at the Academy was going to be a marathon, not a sprint and we needed to pace ourselves both mentally and physically.
  • From the previous mentors briefs’ received at Sandhurst we had also identified a number of areas we wanted to concentrate on. These included:
  • The difference in status and influence between Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers in the ANA compared to our Partner Nations. We wanted to find a way to empower the Bridmal (Sergeants) in our Tolay.
  • We were aware of the Afghan love for competition and wanted to use this as a lever for the betterment of both our mentees and the cadets.
  • We identified the importance of understanding Afghan military tradition in order to establish what would and what wouldn’t work at the Academy. Most of the First Term was spent trying to achieve this.  A classic example was the attempt to impose the Sandhurst discipline model of extra duties, flag pole and dress inspections on the Academy.  It took 12 months of concentrated effort and much frustration before the mentor hierarchy finally realised that it was just wasn’t compatible and would never be adopted regardless of what the Academy’s Command Chain told them.  Making a cadet stare into the sun trumped flag pole every time.


First Term Review

At the end of the First Term the Badder mentoring team, including interpreters, reviewed the lessons we had learnt from the first four months to identify what had worked and what hadn’t worked, and if any changes should be made for the Second Term.  The changes identified included:

  • The importance of encouraging mentees to plan ahead as much as possible, however, in the ANAOA context this was very dependent on how early the weekly training program was issued. This was a very complex and lengthy process with numerous signatures required.
  • It was acceptable and in fact essential to actively distance ourselves from our mentees at times – giving them space to work through a problem for themselves and not breathing down their necks.
  • It was effective to allow our mentees to fail – lifelong learning occurs from failure not success.
  • It had proven invaluable to encourage our mentees to ‘Afghanise’ training – practical, culturally relevant lessons discouraged mentees from just reading the PowerPoint slides and the cadets getting extra sleep.

 The value of our interpreters. They had been instrumental in enabling us to build effective relationships with our mentees; they had translated cultural concepts into simple English and judged the ‘climate’ of the Tolay on a daily basis.

  • Finally and most significantly, we recognized the importance of getting our mentees to ask for advice, guidance and support as opposed to forcing it upon them – moving from a push to a pull mentoring technique. We wanted to avoid imposing our ideas on them unless it was considered essential.


Mentoring Outcomes

The initial focus on building good working relationships with our mentees proved invaluable and they were now much more proactive in asking for help.  Other changes we observed at the end of the Second Term included:

  • The level of teamwork within the Tolay had improved.
  • The standard of instruction was much more consistent across all mentees.
  • The interaction and cooperation between the Blook Commanders and the Bridmal had improved significantly.
  • Cooperation between the staff of the male Tolay and the female Blook had developed significantly throughout the Second Term. As a consequence most of the female training was at a similar standard to that of their male counterparts, even the field based activities.
  • The level of planning and preparation had continued to improve – in particular for the final field exercise.
  • The physical attendance of the Bridmal had increased markedly.

However, considerable work was still required.  Our mentees needed more encouragement to revise their lessons before delivery; collaboration and communication between the Tolay’s within 1st Kandak had a long way to go, and the PowerPoint presentations used to deliver lessons were still far too complex and Western.  Their needed to be a deliberate focus on ‘Afghanising’ all lessons.  The consensus of our mentoring team was that, overall, our approach to mentoring had been successful and we recommended that a similar method be adopted in the future.


Critical Observations for a Building Partner Capacity Mission

A number of key insights stood out for our mentoring team as a consequence of the approach we had taken to what was a unique and reasonably new mission for our respective nations.

 Understand the Cultural Context – from my experience the single most important challenge of a BPC Mission is to understand the cultural context – and this takes time.  Our approach has to align with their culture, otherwise we are literally wasting our time and the moment we leave our efforts could at best dissipate and at worst vanish completely.

Relationship Fatigue – many of the Afghan instructors had started at the Academy with the first Cadet intake in 2013.  They have now experienced six tranches of Partner Nation Mentors, all arriving full of enthusiasm, rotate through the Academy.  By now they are getting sick of the bright ideas brigade who were determined to ‘save’ ANAOA during their deployment.  Many of these mentors departed Afghanistan frustrated and disillusioned, feeling they had wasted nine months of their lives on a thankless nation.

Environmental Circumstances – there was very little understanding of our mentees professional and personnel lives and the risks they and their family faced every day just because they are members of the Afghan National Army.  One of the Tolays’ Bridmal arrived at work one morning very subdued and somewhat shaken.  We found out later that day that he had been given a lift to work by one of his neighbours.  He had jumped out of the ute in Kabul to buy a packet of cigarettes only to observe the ute being lifted into the air 300 metres down the road after a Improvised Explosive Device detonated – the neighbour was badly injured and another passenger was killed.

Another of the Bridmal had one of his cousins kidnapped by the Taliban.  Because his mobile number was programmed into his cousin’s phone the Talban contacted him and it appeared that he then became the family negotiator.  In the end, his family had to pay somewhere between $60,000 and $80,000 US dollars for his cousin’s release.

One of our interpreter’s brothers was an Officer in the ANA – he was shot and killed by the Taliban whilst on active duty.  These three incidents and many more all occurred during our nine month deployment.



The key to our approach as a mentoring team at ANAOA was to be deliberate.  We needed a plan to cross the start line from which we could test and adjust as we learnt more about Afghanistan and the ANA operating environment.  This plan also provided us with the ability to review and assess our performance, enabling each mentor to leave with a sense of achievement and satisfaction.

It was a privilege to be a New Zealand mentor in Afghanistan, an experience I personally found very rewarding.  The Afghan people are an incredibly resilient race who deserves every opportunity to live in peace and prosperity.  This is not something they can accomplish on their own and I believe it is essential for the rest of the world to ‘stay the course’ and support them in their desire to achieve peace and prosperity.


About the Author

I would like to acknowledge the contribution and dedication of the other mentors of the Badder Tolay mentoring team.   Captain Jon Coutts (UK), Captain Cameron Bradfield (AUS), Warrant Officer Class Two Jesper Roennow (DNK), Sergeant Carl Thompson (UK) and Sergeant Oz Djemal (UK).  In addition Capt Kendal Moran (UK) and Sergeant Annie Aspin (UK) mentors of the female Blook who joined us in the Second Term.

I would also like to thank Lieutenant Colonel Josh Wineera, Mr Andrew Morris and Mrs Erin Foster for their help to edit and review this article.