Lt.-Col. John Valtonen spent a year helping train war-torn nation's security forces
With the Taliban insurgency still raging, and violence still common in many parts of the country, it's easy to question the legacy of Canada and other NATO nations who spent more than a decade there.
While there are still major challenges, a Sudbury police officer who returned late last year from a training mission in Afghanistan says he's optimistic. Lt.-Col. John Valtonen, of the 2nd Battalion, Irish Regiment of Canada, said Afghans now have a chance to emerge from its violent past, which traces back to the Soviet Union invasion in 1979.
“I have full confidence that they're on their way to success,” Valtonen said in a recent interview with Northern Life, when asked whether Canada's efforts have had an impact. “We have given them a better chance at a normal life.
“Over the last 10-12 years, the Afghan national security forces have grown (and now) exceeds 350,000 soldiers and policeman. They’ve also grown in confidence and professionalism.”
Valtonen, who is also a sergeant with Greater Sudbury Police, served in Afghanistan from January to December 2013. He was awarded a Bronze Star from the U.S. government for his service, a rare honour for a non-American.
While there is generally a positive view of the Afghan Army, there have been widespread concerns about the national police force, which has borne the brunt of Taliban attacks in more remote villages, where the control of the central government is still weak.
Valtonen's duties included finding strategies to improve the quality of training for Afghan security forces — including the police, army and air force. He said he witnessed significant improvement among local police, as more training of Afghan trainers has improved the readiness of frontline officers.
Valtonen led a team of 10 multinational officers whose job it was to spread out across Afghanistan to evaluate the state of security forces. That data was vital in developing specific strategies for different parts of the country.
The challenge was daunting — creating a professional security force in a country decimated by 30 years of fighting and widespread factional conflicts.
“We were very fortunate to start engaging with the command and the advisers and Afghans, just trying to professionalize their forces,” he said. “They're actually training themselves now.
“It is a tough neighbourhood, as it's been termed before, but they are stepping up and dealing with the challenges on a regular basis.”
People forget Afghans have been taking the lead in security operations since the middle of 2013, he said, “which they have done and are doing well.”
Police forces in Afghanistan, as in Sudbury or anywhere else, are more successful when officers know the territory and the people they are protecting, Valtonen said.
“The idea was to keep them close to their villages and districts that they grew up in,” he said. “As a police officer, that makes perfect sense.”
While it's difficult today to judge long-term effects, Valtonen said the sacrifices of the 155 Canadian soldiers killed — including three from Sudbury — have given Afghans a real chance to turn their country around.
“There’s a tremendous amount of hope and confidence that the Allies have given the Afghans, and they are picking up and are carrying on with themselves and we should be proud of that,” he said.
“Seeing the children as you're going through the villages, the girls and the boys running to school with their backpacks on, you know that there's a chance for the future.”