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 An Ariana Media Publication 09/02/2014
 Assignment Kandahar: Afghanistan’s fiery, fragile future

National Post
10/09/2010
By Brian Hutchinson

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The war that Canadian soldiers are helping wage in Afghanistan is not being lost. Having spent nearly six months in the country since 2006, most of that time embedded with our troops, I’ve just come home again, convinced of it.

But the war isn’t being won, either; the conflict, with sporadic fighting and death by remote control, just continues.

So it will, barring some miracle truce, and long after the last Canadian battle group has left Kandahar province next summer.

Other armies that comprise the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have enough capacity — if not the desire — to keep killing Taliban with relative ease, for many years. The United States might one day reduce its troop count in Afghanistan but having established its presence there with massive military fortresses, it won’t just up and leave.

The Taliban, for their part, have the resolve and resources to see that their fight lasts.

If anything is being lost, it’s the counterinsurgency, the crucial allied attempt to win local confidence and co-operation. Without those, this long war cannot be won.

The counterinsurgency is failing in the hinterland. Rural Afghans are still wary of foreign troops, even after almost nine years of intervention. They don’t trust their own politicians, whom they accuse of corruption and double-dealing. They’re frightened of the Taliban, who dominate village society and who use a medieval system of justice to mete out rough punishment and perform executions.

The situation is worst in rural Kandahar, where Canadian soldiers have operated since early 2006 and where they have never been made to feel welcome. Coalition soldiers no longer speak of winning local “hearts and minds.”

Kandaharis are in “self-survival mode,” a senior Canadian officer serving in Kandahar told me recently. “They’ve lived with war for 30 years,” the officer said. “They don’t trust anyone outside of their immediate family.”

He went on to compare their situation to the Innu who once lived at Davis Inlet, a poverty and disease-stricken village in Labrador that was finally closed eight years ago. “A Davis Inlet with an armed gang in power that’s fighting 1,000 other gangs,” he added.

Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance, commander of the Canadian-led Task Force Kandahar for most of 2009 (and again this summer, after the removal of his disgraced successor, Brigadier-General Daniel Menard) understands the province’s current counterinsurgency strategy better than anyone; he helped plan and co-ordinate it.

His “model village” approach — to embrace rural communities willing to receive enhanced security and infrastructure, with the hope of enticing other communities to request similar improvements in exchange for their pledge to not protect insurgents — is most successful counterinsurgency measure introduced to Kandahar in the past four years.

Unfortunately, that isn’t saying much. Only one “model village” in Kandahar has seen any progress, in terms of stability and development. Deh-e-Bagh in Dand district, just south of Kandahar city, is not trouble-free, but it was peaceful enough this summer that Brig.-Gen. Vance could bring civilians there to walk about. We removed our body armour but we were not without armed escort.

Deh-e-Bagh is just one little village. It’s only a few kilometres removed from Afghanistan’s second largest city, which since July has been ringed by a network of walled vehicle checkpoints, manned by U.S. and Afghan soldiers.

The security ring looks impressive but inside Kandahar city, insurgents continue to target and kill government workers. “People do not look to ISAF forces as a source of protection and security, especially in the city itself,” says Peter Dimitroff, a former Canadian military officer who works as a civilian security advisor inside the provincial capital.

The Taliban’s “current strategy of targeted killings of provincial officials and tribal elders who have co-operated with governance and reconstruction efforts has been extremely effective,” he adds.

“The security trajectory has been steady since 2006: A continuous downward trend, and the various approaches used by the coalition forces in the south have not succeeded in changing that in any significant way,” notes Mr. Dimitroff.

An even more sobering assessment comes from Brig.-Gen. Vance’s handpicked political aide and counterinsurgency advisor, an American scholar named Thomas Johnson. He writes scathingly of most coalition attempts to pacify and befriend the Afghan population, and compares the counterinsurgency to American efforts four decades ago in Vietnam.

“In Vietnam, the enemy was monolithic; the insurgency in Afghanistan is a complex network of networks, and that is bad news,” Prof. Johnson wrote a year ago in the journal Military Review.

“Afghanistan is not one insurgency but several connected ones, and generalizations about U.S. enemies in Afghanistan are misleading and often counterproductive. We are fighting a counterinsurgency; the enemy is fighting a jihad. By misunderstanding the basic nature of the enemy, the United States is fighting the wrong war again, just as we did in Vietnam. It is hard to defeat an enemy you do not understand.”

Canadians may have a more sophisticated understanding of the enemy but we have made mistakes, too. Such as wishful thinking. I was reminded of it after visiting Nakhonay, a small village in Panjwaii district and a key area of operations for Canadian troops.

Brig.-Gen. Vance expressed high hopes for the place, many times, before standing down last month. Nakhonay, he said, could be the next Deh-e-Bagh, another model village.

One day in August, I strolled along a road in Nakhonay, unescorted, taking photos and speaking with locals. An elderly man arrived, riding a donkey. He stopped for a brief chat with a local shopkeeper. Canadian soldiers sat outside their bucolic combat outpost and watched.

I felt completely at ease, a rare thing for me outside the wire in Panjwaii.

Two days later, there was an explosion down the street: An IED, planted in a compound wall, just around the corner from another Canadian combat outpost. One Canadian soldier died of injuries sustained in the attack; another was badly injured.

This week I learned of another Nakhonay incident. This one involved the elderly man with the donkey. He was riding through the village recently when Canadian soldiers approached to inspect his saddlebags.

He blew himself up.

Three Canadians and several local children were injured in the blast, according to a military source. Questioned later, villagers claimed no knowledge of the man. No co-operation, no confidence. No hope for peace.

National Post bhutchinson@nationalpost.com

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