KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Before the backdrop of U.S. President Barack Obama’s long-awaited new Afghanistan strategy, NATO commanders are putting Canada’s military command in charge of the tactically vital Arghandab district north of Kandahar city.
As a result, two full battalions of troops already in the country — one American, the other Afghan — will come under the control of Brig. Gen. Dan Menard, the commander of the Canadian contingent known as Task Force Kandahar, by the new year.
“You’ll get all these guys together focused on Arghandab under the command of Dan Menard,” said Brig. Gen. Frederick Hodges, director of operations for NATO’s southern command.
“I think that’s a significant manifestation of the importance of that place on the city.”
Under U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, NATO has signalled its desire to shift the focus of counter-insurgency efforts to urban areas; Kandahar has been singled out among them.
Many Kandaharis consider the Arghandab as an extension of the city, where security and development are already Canada’s responsibility.
The U.S. army battalion that’s currently posted to Arghandab — a unit known as the Strykers — has been reassigned to secure the major highways in Kandahar. Since taking control from the Canadians this summer, the Strykers have suffered heavy casualties caused by IEDs, including 21 deaths.
“There is definitely an enemy presence mixed in with a complex tribal fabric that makes it a tough fight,” said Hodges.
The change in the boundaries of Canada’s area of operations are part of a more general shakeup of NATO activities in the south ahead of Obama’s decision on troop levels in Afghanistan, which was expected later Tuesday.
Obama was to announce plans to send about 30,000 more American soldiers to the country over the next six months, the bulk of which will be dedicated to Kandahar and neighbouring Helmand province, where the Taliban is strongest.
Hodges stressed the changes to NATO’s strategy in Kandahar would go ahead regardless of any forthcoming U.S. troop deployments. But he also hinted that refocusing on Kandahar would be the first part of a two-pronged approach to securing the southern provinces.
“As our capability increases in the coming months, which we are anticipating… then we will begin to clear central Helmand,” he said.
There are currently about 700 U.S. soldiers under Canadian command in Kandahar. By the time the first round of reinforcements are in place in January, that number will swell to the equivalent of three U.S. battalions, a unit that’s typically comprised of about 800 soldiers each.
NATO is in the process of establishing a security perimeter around Kandahar city, in order to restrict insurgent access to the second-largest urban area in Afghanistan.
At the same time, it wants to avoid sending more troops into the city itself, which instead will be the focus of development and governance efforts.
“I think this is an effective plan that gives us an opportunity, if we get the governance and development part right, to change how people think about Kandahar,” Hodges said.
Canadian soldiers based at the Provincial Reconstruction Team in the city have spent the past several weeks conducting intelligence-gathering operations in the surrounding villages where the security cordon is likely to be established.
They have also been working to streamline their information about the political and social dynamics of Kandahar’s various neighbourhoods in order to make it more easily accessible to other coalition forces.
Obama’s decision will put pressure on other NATO allies to either contribute more troops or in cases like Canada, extend existing commitments.
“I think it’ll have a positive influence on how other countries think about whether or not they should commit,” Hodges said of a possible U.S. surge. “I personally… would love to see the Canadians stay here as long as is necessary, but I understand each nation has to make its own decisions.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already asked France for an additional 1,500 troops to add to the 3,750 already in the country. She is seeking up to 7,000 more soldiers in all from the NATO alliance.
And while Canada is expected to begin a military pullout in 2011, some say it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Obama’s plan could influence the popular perception of the Afghan mission in Canada and give Ottawa reason to rethink its own exit strategy.
“I would suggest that if Obama had a strategy that Canadians would be at ease with, it’s not inconceivable the government would change its direction,” said Maj. Gen. (ret.) Terry Liston, a former chief of planning and development with the Canadian Armed Forces.
For that to happen, Obama would have to put more distance between his strategy and the approach of his predecessor, George W. Bush, which was concerned more with counter-terrorism than counter-insurgency.
Liston said the NATO move increasing Canada’s area of responsibility was a vote of confidence in the Canadian approach to population-centric warfare, and could contribute to a thorough rethink of the 2011 deadline for combat operations.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has nonetheless signalled repeatedly — most recently this past Sunday — that there’s no political will to revisit the issue.
“I don’t sense any desire on the part of any party to extend the military mission,” Harper said.