Monday, September 14, 2009

Canadian Soldiers Believe in Afghan Mission

Matthew Fisher is an independent Canadian journalist whom I've followed for years. He has reported from wherever Canadian Soldiers have been deployed since the late 1980's; first for The Toronto Sun and subsequently The National Post, owned by Canwest. His reporting has always appeared to me to be unbiased although he doesn't hide the fact that admires Canadian Soldiers. This is his latest from The National Post.(The emphasis is mine.)

Confident voice of Canadian troops rarely heard in Afghan debate

Matthew Fisher, Canwest News Service
Published: Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sapper Alexandre Beaudin-D'Anjou, his face still bloodied and badly swollen one day after a homemade landmine had killed two of his colleagues last week, announced he would answer questions about the awful incident, but only after making a statement.
In what was an exceptional "cri de coeur" to his countrymen on the home front, the young combat engineer from Quebec City declared: "I want to say that part of the Canadian population negatively views the work that we do here, above all because they don't understand what we do. In my opinion, the majority of the Afghan population benefits from what we do.

"Sadly, there are dangers in this, as you saw in yesterday's incident. All the soldiers feel deeply that we will finish this work for one another."

With Internet access, and radio and television stations streaming news programs to their forward-operating bases and strongpoints, soldiers are acutely aware that some commentators -- with little or no knowledge of what soldiers confront in Afghanistan -- have given up on them and their mission.

They say they are more than a little bewildered by all the discussion about "wither Afghanistan" and disappointed that the Liberals and Conservatives -- who ordered them to the far side of the world -- have become so terrified about the Afghan file's potential political consequences that they have fallen silent about the current mission and what Canada may do when Parliament's current mandate expires in 2011.

There could not be two more different views of what Canada is achieving in Afghanistan than that of the troops and of the mission's critics at home.

Unlike the U.S., where there is a robust, multi-faceted debate about Afghanistan in which senior soldiers can make their views known, all Canadian soldiers are under strict orders from Ottawa to remain silent about the Afghan mission's future and ways that Canada might adapt or change its mission for the better.

However, in stark contrast to the talk at home, there is confidence among Canadian troops and civilians in Kandahar that a tipping point has been reached recently in the province, with the long awaited arrival of the U.S. cavalry.

In this context, the cavalry is an infantry battalion, three Stryker light armoured battalions, a slew of military policemen and scores of helicopters from the 82nd Aviation Brigade.

Among soldiers there is confidence that Canada's task force is finally in a position to focus on what the government has always wanted them to do.

That is, to "clear, hold and build" within their area of operations which, thanks to the Americans, is now about 60 per cent smaller, and to devote more time to mentoring Afghan army and police units who must take over the fight against the Taliban. It's hoped this will deny the Taliban and al-Qaida safe havens from which they can again use Afghanistan as a kindergarten for global terrorism.

The debate in the U.S. about Afghanistan, which has a profound spillover effect on views in Canada, is being shaped by an odd double whammy. The first was George W. Bush's colossal blunder in abandoning Afghanistan soon after 9/11 to pursues his misadventure in Iraq. The second is that because of that long war, there is little patience south of the border for the long campaign now required in Afghanistan because the former president shifted his focus from South Asia at a time when it would have not taken a great effort to stabilize the situation.

The debate about the Afghan war in Britain has been shaped by some of the same factors. But the British have also been slow to respond to problems of their own making. The decision to pretend that Afghanistan was Northern Ireland, and to roar around the desert in thin-skinned vehicles was a deadly error. So was Britain's inability to muster sufficient helicopters to fly some of their troops out of trouble.

Thanks largely to the Manley Commission, Canada's equipment shortcomings were dealt with some time ago. The G-wagons, which had become notorious improvised explosive devices traps, were banished and more armoured vehicles were brought in. Helicopters were also provided, taking many Canadians off the roads and a U.S. infantry battalion was dispatched to help the Canadians in Zhari/Panjwaii.

Clear evidence of the high regard the Pentagon has for Canadian military leadership was Washington's unusual decision to place that infantry battalion and, more recently, some U.S. military police under Canadian command. At the same time, and in a similar situation, U.S. Marines fighting beside the British next door in Helmand have all remained under U.S. command.

Further evidence of how well Canadian forces are thought of was provided recently by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the American who commands the NATO force in Afghanistan, and Anders Rasmussen, the Danish NATO secretary-general. They both lauded Canada for its model village project, which is being expanded at this moment from its base in Dand District, southwest of Kandahar. It is now being copied by other armies, most notably by the Stryker battalions.

Last month's presidential election in Afghanistan has created a political debacle. However, what was obscured by credible charges of vote-buying and ballot stuffing has been the fact that, despite loud boasts by the Taliban, the Canadians and their Afghan and U.S. allies kept the lid on violence in Kandahar on election day, denying the insurgents an expected propaganda victory.

For more than three years now, some media have claimed Kandahar City was about to fall to the Taliban. In fact, the Taliban have not once mounted a serious attack to gain control of even one part of Afghanistan's second largest city. What several deadly attacks on Afghan civilians in the provincial capital have demonstrated is that suicide bombers and IEDs have become the only way for insurgents to fight.

It is impossible for the Taliban to win a war with such tactics unless the coalition countries succumb to the propaganda that such terrorist attacks generate, and fold up their tents.

Although badly battered, the Taliban remains resilient because there still is a steady stream of religious fanatics being recruited from across the border in Pakistan and wealthy donors in the Gulf continue to provide strong financial support.

Despite the Taliban's abiding strength, Kandaharis remain overwhelmingly united about two things. Thanks in part to the huge number of Taliban attacks on civilians, the general population still wants nothing to do with leader Mullah Omar and his Arab friends. What they want is for Canadian and coalition forces to stay until their own forces are strong enough to confront the insurgents.

The view of many Canadian soldiers, which they have not been allowed to express publicly, is that the war in Afghanistan is far from being lost. There is much evidence that the Taliban is running out of room to hide and will find themselves in a dire situation if more U.S. troops are made available to cover the flanks and the routes they take to their winter sanctuaries in Afghanistan are cut off.

Beaudin-D'Anjou spoke for all the troops in South Asia when he said that those who have a negative view of their mission do not understand the many challenges that they have met and why it is of crucial importance to Kandaharis and to Canadians that they are there.

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