Canada’s role shrinking in Kandahar, Afghanistan

OTTAWA — The influx of thousands of fresh U.S. troops into Kandahar is prompting a major reorganization of NATO’s southern command in Afghanistan this summer, The Canadian Press has learned.

OTTAWA — The influx of thousands of fresh U.S. troops into Kandahar is prompting a major reorganization of NATO’s southern command in Afghanistan this summer, The Canadian Press has learned.

The biggest change is expected to see Canada give up authority for Kandahar city and be reduced to commanding a brigade-sized unit south and west of the provincial capital. It’s another sign of Canada’s shrinking role in the Afghan province that it has defended for four years.

A Canadian general currently oversees the Canadian battle group of infantry, artillery and tanks, as well as three U.S. infantry battalions stetched around Kandahar in what’s been described as a ring of stability. That the Pentagon has trusted the Canadian army with so many American soldiers — roughly 2,600 — has been a point of pride for Ottawa.

But as more U.S. troops arrive, the command structure will see Kandahar carved up into what’s expected to be three distinct brigade-sized formations — all of them reporting to NATO’s southern command.

“It’s organizationally better,” said one senior NATO officer, who spoke on background.

“At the end of the day, (Task Force Kandahar) is a brigade headquarters. It just happens to be commanded by a one-star general, but at the end of the day it’s a brigade. And for one brigade to have all of this, that’s too much. That’s really what the big generals notice.”

At the end of the reorganization, the Canadian battle group and only one U.S. battalion will remain in Canadian hands, likely the 1st Cavalary, 71st U.S. Regiment.

American airborne units fighting in the troublesome districts of Zharey and Argandaud, to the north of the city, will be grouped together as one combat unit.

And Kandahar city will become the responsibility of specialized U.S. brigade.

An International Security Assistance Force spokesman confirmed the changes and said they make sense given that the number of NATO troops in the province will hit 21,000 by the end of the summer — triple what was there at this time last year.

Lt.-Col. Todd Vician, a U.S. officer in Kabul, also said the “reorganization of forces in and around Kandahar allows for greater partnering” opportunities with the Afghan army and police.

The fundamental face of the war has changed, some defence observers say.

For years Canada has seen itself as alone in Kandahar and calling for reinforcements from allies who were either indifferent or distracted by other wars, as Washington was with Iraq.

“Somebody new has come to play in our ballpark (and) it’s the big-leaguers,” said Douglas Bland, a retired military officer, and chair of the defence management studies group at Queen’s University.

“We had ownership of the whole place. The victories and defeats were clearly identifiable as Canadian. That’s changed.”

He said he wonders how history will remember Canada’s long defence of Kandahar and whether it will even be noted by other countries.

Bland said the overwhelming American build up, which has been underway for a year, means that Canada will be tied even more closely to U.S. war-fighting strategy and tactics.

U.S. troops have suffered an increasing number of casualties while under Canadian command, but several NATO sources say the combat deaths and injuries have nothing to do with the shake-up.