Monday, December 7, 2009

Canadian soldiers to spend winter keeping Afghans from Taliban's grasp

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - In the five months they have to establish a security zone around the insurgent snake pit known as Kandahar city, Canadian troops will be working to turn local allegiances in an effort to marginalize the Taliban.

Changes to Canada's area of operation, made public by NATO earlier this week, have resulted in a significant re-organization of how and where the country's soldiers are being deployed in the dangerous southern province that has been their base of operations since 2006.

The top Canadian general in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Daniel Menard, is in the process of re-assigning troops from more fortified and isolated forward operating bases, or FOBs, to a series of decidedly less secure platoon houses to form his so-called "ring of stability" around Afghanistan's second-largest city.

"We will not clear any village in this area of operation that we will not hold," Menard said last week.

The platoon houses, the number of which will have doubled by the spring, will allow Canadians to maintain a persistent presence around the approaches to the city, which have long been easy for the Taliban to exploit.

In many ways, Menard's strategy represents an expansion of his predecessor's "model-village" experiment.

Brig. Gen. Jonathan Vance ordered troops in select villages in Dand and Panjwaii to leave the relative security of FOBs to live closer to the population they were supposed to be protecting.

It is Menard's hope that the success of that model, which succeeded to a degree in fortifying villages against Taliban infiltration, can be applied on a larger scale.

"To turn the population to support us and therefore marginalize the insurgency, that is what we're after," Menard said."We're not after killing every single insurgent."

Menard has given a May deadline for the ring of stability to be finalized, which will likely entail basing stability platoons in the villages that surround the city.

Despite intelligence that suggests insurgents plan on remaining in Kandahar for the winter period, rather than their usual practice of returning to Pakistan, military planners still expect violence to decline over the coming months.

They say it is vital to take advantage of the window to kick-start community development and provide fighting-aged males with some form of employment.

"It's a good time to go in and hold without actually having to clear, so when the insurgents come back in the spring we're there," said Col. Simon Bernard, the Canadian military chief of long-term planning, referring to the counter-insurgency doctrine of "clear, hold, build."

A major part of the reorganization will involve bolstering development, which the military feels has stalled because of insecurity in the farther reaches of the province.

There is a sense that the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team, a joint military-civilian operation tasked with heading development projects in the province, has limited its influence to where Canadian troops are located.

"The KPRT is going to change its focus," said Bernard. "Their area of influence will expand. They will have to look again at becoming the provincial-level player."

Towards this end, field commanders will be given more resources to support reconstruction projects. The U.S. will also be setting up development support teams, or DSTs, a district-level equivalent to the PRT.

"The addition of American personnel and assets definitely will make our job easier," said Ben Roswell, Canada's top civilian diplomat in Kandahar.

The key element in allowing Menard to seal the ring around Kandahar city will be the American troops based in the Arghandab district north of the city who have been put at his disposal.

"It does point to the growing partnership between Canada and the United States, both in the military and the civilian sides of the mission," Roswell said.

"This is becoming a more fully integrated Canada-U.S. operation."

Arghandab, located just north of the city, will not see any new Canadian troops but will nevertheless fall under Menard's command, joining the two other battalions who report to him.

The Strykers, the U.S. battalion that currently occupies lush but volatile Arghandab, have been dispatched to safeguard the major highways running through the province. They will be replaced by a battalion from the storied 82nd Airborne division.

Menard acknowledged that the inclusion of Arghandab would account for a 20 per cent increase in enemy contact in Canada's area of operations.

"There is no doubt it is a very dynamic area," he said. "That is why a lot of resources have been pushed to us in order to deal with this particular issue."

Deploying troops among the population, of course, has a downside. Soldiers are more vulnerable to attack regardless of district; their security becomes incumbent on the relationships they forge with locals.

This is true also for the expanded mentoring program, dubbed "embedded partnering," that will feature a unit exchange between Canadian and Afghan military forces.

For their part, Canadian civilian police officers will be living with their Afghan National Police charges in police sub-stations. But both the army and the ANP are common targets for the Taliban, which it is widely suspected has already infiltrated both institutions.

President Barack Obama's plan to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan is arguably more about reversing Taliban momentum and buying time to improve the Afghan security forces than it is about dealing a decisive blow to the insurgency.

While the majority of those troops will be sent to the south, where the insurgency is strongest, Kandahar is unlikely to see any new troops for several months.

"The first force package will be going somewhere to the west to focus on population centres in Helmand," Bernard said. "Then we can probably expect an increase (in troops) in our AO (area of operations) or in the surrounding area of our AO."

Over the week-end, U.S. Marines in Helmand began preparing the ground for the reinforcements by launching an offensive against Taliban positions in the Now Zad Valley.

David Petraeus, the U.S. general in charge of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, linked the offensive to the effort to establish "envelopes of security" around key towns in Helmand and Kandahar.

"We are in the middle of all of this, at the forefront of all those activities," Menard said of Kandahar's relationship to NATO's strategy in the south.

"It is a very, very important piece of ground."

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