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A French Logistics OMLT in Afghanistan

French operational mentor and liaison teams advise and train Afghan National Army units and help them become more capable of independently securing their nation.

From June to December 2008, I led a French logistics operational mentor and liaison team (OMLT) in advising the 5th Kandak, the Afghan logistics battalion serving the 1st Brigade, 201st Army Corps, Afghan National Army (ANA). The French OMLT replaced a U.S. embedded training team at the beginning of 2008 and retained the focus of the U.S. unit’s mission. The OMLT’s mission was to perform, sometimes simultaneously, three functions: teach, advise, and train.

In this duty, the French logistician must become a mentor. The key to an OMLT’s success lies in choosing men with adequate mental strength to stand alongside Afghan soldiers—not only in training but also in combat. Even if fighting is not the aim of the mission, it is a very probable consequence of the mission of mentoring. Actually, in Afghanistan, French logisticians have been serving as “fighting logisticians” since 2008. Within the OMLT, every member of the French Transportation Corps, from private to colonel, is committed as a fighting logistician.

The French Army deployed its first OMLT (an infantry one) in 2007, and a logistics OMLT was deployed the following year. This logistics team of 30 men (mostly noncommissioned officers and officers) does not support other OMLTs but advises the 5th Kandak every day and for each operation.

The French Transportation Corps has experience in establishing logistics battalions by building mission-tailored units out of various specialties, but the OMLT concept is new. The concept is based on military assistance missions that were carried out in Africa, and today the OMLT is the key element in gradually bringing the ANA to independence in security tasks.

The Choice of Men: The First Criterion of Success
The choice of men is incredibly important to the mission because the members of the team will spend 1 year together (training for the mission for 6 months and carrying it out for another 6 months). The OMLT’s cohesion is built during the operational training, which itself must be considered as the first mission.

During these months of training, which are crucial for mission success, the team builds up its moral strength. The qualifications requested from each individual are numerous, and their psychological balance is fundamental. In fact, the ideal French OMLT logistician must demonstrate hardiness, a full spectrum of technical competencies, emotional stability while facing stressful combat situations, an open mind (since Afghan culture is complex), and the ability to speak English since an Afghan translator speaks Dari or Pashto and English but no French at all. These qualities may not exist in one single man.

However, in Afghanistan, the quality of training was evident in the correctness of the advice given daily to the Afghan soldiers and especially in the success of the operational missions. Lessons learned revealed that a person’s psychological balance is the most important quality for a commitment in the context of the OMLT, but it is also the most difficult one to judge.

Mentoring: A New Form of Military Assistance
In civilian life, mentoring is an activity called coaching (even in French), meaning “revitalizing an ailing firm.” As part of the OMLT, the mentoring mission is innovative and is based on three tasks:

  • Advise ANA units in everyday life, teaching, and training.
  • Advise Afghan commanders in planning and using land or air support from coalition forces.
  • Provide the necessary means to use command and control assets to allow authority to be implemented and operations to be controlled.

The daily tasks are complicated by the fact that they are intended for a mix of ex-mujahidin, former officers trained by the Soviets in the 1980s, and young people involved in a regular army who have good operational abilities despite lacking basic technology skills.

As a team leader of the logistics OMLT, I directly advised the commanding officer of the Afghan logistics battalion and cooperated with him in training his unit and preparing logistics operations to support his infantry brigade of 3,000 men. Each of the 15 French mentors had an Afghan counterpart in each logistics specialty of the 5th Kandak, which is essential to resupplying the brigade. The brigade secures Highway 1, which stretches over 100 kilometers out of Kabul and is the only logistics supply line linking the capital to Kandahar.

Mentoring is about advising, showing an open mind, proposing, suggesting, guiding, and letting the Afghan officer make the final decision. Trust between the French officer and his Afghan counterpart is fundamental. This takes time to achieve, but this relationship is the only way to success.

The French officer must not be a substitute for Afghan authority, or else the mission will fail. The mentor is an adviser or a trainer but not a surrogate. The first month of the mission was an observation round that determined the result of the mission and its success. Confidence was gained on the ground, particularly after 2 weeks in Afghanistan when the first ambush occurred and our capabilities were successfully tested.

Convoys: The French Transportation Corps at War
The conflict in Afghanistan is a war without a name or front line, and logisticians travel across many uncontrolled areas. The ANA is at war, but the coalition forces, which officially are present only for assistance, are not. The enemies have no front line and attack the logistics convoys throughout the whole area of operations. The notions of front and rear do not exist. It is a modern conflict in which logisticians support the farthest forward operational bases and ensure resupply missions are everywhere.

The current missions of the French OMLTs include accompanying the 5th Kandak when resupplying the ANA infantry battalions that secure Highway 1. The OMLTs and the 5th Kandak deliver fuel, engineering equipment, and food and evacuate the vehicles damaged in combat.

In 6 months, the OMLTs conducted about 100 missions throughout the provinces of Logar, Wardak, and Bamyan. They traveled over 100,000 miles on the trails of Afghanistan. The mission was difficult, and each soldier felt the pressure of each convoy, which turned out to be combined, and sometimes joint, military operations. The duration of such missions varied from 1 day to 1 week, but the enemy threat and the improvised explosive device ambushes were constant. The first enemy that had to be fought was the routine. Everyone had to remain careful from the first day of the mission to the last one and master the tactics, techniques, and procedures.

We showed our Afghan counterparts that each French logistician is a fighter and thus earned their trust. The partnership has been going on for 2 years now. This exciting mission is a great adventure for a soldier. It puts everyone, whether specialist or leader, private or colonel, in the role of a soldier and a fighting logistician. But this mission is dangerous because it means that the French soldier shares the daily mission of the Afghan soldier, who is at war.

Lieutenant Colonel Christophe Barbe is the chief of the French Army logistics advanced course in Bourges, France, and a former logistics operational mentor and liaison team leader in Afghanistan. He has a master’s degree in the history of international relations from the University of La Sorbonne in Paris.

 
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