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  • Roland Paris

The Final Chapter of Our Afghan Mission

Globe & Mail

Canada's military mission in Afghanistan is slated to end in 2011, but it is far from over. Contrary to reports that Canada is already scaling back, our military and civilian officials in Kandahar are at the forefront of NATO's new counterinsurgency strategy. In Kandahar just over a week ago, I was startled not only by the scale and speed of the U.S. buildup, but also by the fact Canadians remain (at least for the time being) in key leadership positions – in spite of the influx of American soldiers, civilians and money. A Canadian general is commander of NATO military operations in the city of Kandahar and environs. Among the four battalion-sized units he commands, only one is the Canadian battle group. The others are American – and more U.S. forces are on the way.

Canadians also occupy leadership positions in the Provincial Reconstruction Team, the regional command, and NATO headquarters in Kabul.

Some reports have suggested Canadian units are being penned in their bases or sidelined in the field. In fact, Canadian troops are fanning out in districts southwest of the city, sometimes deploying in small groups to protect towns and villages. This is the essence of NATO's counterinsurgency approach: providing security to Afghans by living near them, rather than driving through in armoured convoys from time to time.

From an American perspective, relying on Canadians now makes good sense. Our soldiers and civilians have been working in Kandahar (with little support from other NATO countries) since 2006. During that time, and at considerable cost, they have acquired a reasonably detailed knowledge of the province.

They have experience in patrolling the districts around Kandahar, overseeing local development projects, mentoring Kandahar-based Afghan army and police units, and working with leaders including the provincial governor (himself an Afghan-Canadian).

Such knowledge is critical, not only for NATO's military campaign in Kandahar but also for its broader counterinsurgency efforts. Securing the population is the top priority in counterinsurgency, and knowledge of the human environment is of equal or greater importance to fighting skill. The U.S. appears to have recognized the benefit of tapping into Canada's experience and knowledge in Kandahar.

Canada may have played only a minor role in last Thursday's conference on Afghanistan in London, and our clout in Kabul may be limited in comparison to some of our allies, but in the dust of Kandahar – one of the few places where the success or failure of the international mission may be decided – Canada is a leader, not a junior partner.

This will change, of course. Even if we were to keep our battle group in Kandahar beyond 2011, the U.S. would eventually put its own people in charge. The growing imbalance in resources makes this inevitable.

But for now, both Americans and Canadians appear to be focused on the coming months. Their goal is to establish a buffer of security in the areas around the city, which encompass most of the heavily populated areas of the province, and to provide the Afghans in this zone with a more durable sense of security.

Development officials are also deploying with groups of soldiers to district centres and funnelling aid money into local development projects. Within the city, too, a major push is under way to improve living conditions as quickly as possible.

When I visited just over a year ago, for example, international officials were exploring options to improve the city's electricity supply, a major complaint of the citizenry. Would it be cost-effective? Would it be sustainable? Today, there is little time for such deliberation. For better or worse, the U.S. will pay a cool $200-million to construct a diesel electric generation facility. Next decision, please.

Can this strategy work? No one really knows. But there is a widespread sense among both soldiers and civilians that this is the last chance to reverse the declining trends of recent years. The sense of urgency is palpable.

And the stakes couldn't be higher. Reversing the insurgency's momentum in Kandahar would buy time to train more Afghan security forces. It could also help efforts to persuade elements of the Taliban, who now feel that they have the upper hand, to lay down their arms. Most importantly, it could set the stage for an orderly withdrawal of most of NATO's combat forces from Afghanistan – in a manner that leaves behind some semblance of stability.

But whatever happens, the struggle for Kandahar is likely to be a defining moment in this long war. It may also be the final and most important chapter in our Afghan mission.

Roland Paris is director of the Centre for International Policy Studies and associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

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