11/24/2013 10:58 EST | Updated 01/24/2014 05:59 EST

Morale among Canadian troop trainers in Afghanistan was shaky, army survey

OTTAWA - Coming down from the institutional high of fighting a war is something the Canadian Army has grappled with almost from the outset of its mission to train Afghan forces, newly released documents show.

A survey conducted by the army found morale was shaky among the first set of Canadian troops who deployed to train the Afghan National Army following the end of Canada's five-year combat mission in Kandahar.

Only one-third of the soldiers who took part in the end-of-tour study said they would be willing to deploy on similar, future operations — a finding that senior commanders found troubling.

"The morale of the participants was moderate to low at the individual (59 per cent) and unit level (72 per cent)," according to the survey. Half of the participants recognized the value of training the Afghans, but only "one-third (32 per cent) were optimistic about the mission."

Equally disturbing for the military leadership was that only 58 per cent of those asked felt that their job, which mostly involved training Afghan army trainers, was "significant or important" during the six-to-eight month deployment.

"The (chain of command) should be concerned with such a low level of appreciation and job satisfaction which may lead to a low propensity for redeploying on similar missions in the future," said a July 11, 2012 briefing prepared for the commander of the army at the time, lieutenant-general Peter Devlin, who has now retired. "There does appear to be a lack of belief in the mission."

The survey, involving 69 per cent of 950 person task force, was conducted in March 2012 and recently released to The Canadian Press under access to information legislation, along with briefing material.

The release coincides with the final withdrawal of the remaining 950 Canadian troops from Afghanistan, an exercise that will be ongoing until next spring when the training mission ends on March 31, 2014.

Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, who's in charge of both domestic and overseas operations, says it's tough, when you are in the thick of stressful situations, to fully appreciate what's happened. But Beare's confident that once they arrived home, troops understood the importance of what they had done.

"I have had zero reports of systemic or other dissatisfactions with the why we're there and what we're doing," Beare said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press. "I have heard and observed natural frictions that come with a life of coaching and mentoring, especially across language and cultural lines. But, ultimately, (I have heard) universal satisfaction."

Most of the troops, drawn from the 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, said they felt they were well prepared for the assignment, which saw them sprinkled across training camps throughout Kabul, as well as in northern and western Afghanistan.

Despite being away from the fighting in the south, the survey found 59 per cent of troops experienced a noticeable level of "psychological distress," a figure that is on par with what soldiers reported during combat operations. The difference, though, is that the "extreme stress" of trainers related to what they perceived as a "lack of support."

Unlike the five previous years in Kandahar, the mission that unfolded in Kabul garnered little public or media attention. Many of the soldiers said there was the sense that although still nominally in harm's way, the country had forgotten about them.

The Harper government has said, as recently as this fall's throne speech, that it intends to commemorate the country's involvement in Afghanistan once all troops are home.