KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The slight swagger in the steps of Canadian soldiers in southern Afghanistan these days is tempered by wistfulness over what has been and what might yet come.
As the sun sets over their five-year mission in some of the most hostile territory anywhere, there’s a proud yet not quite fulfilled sense of accomplishment.
“There’s a little bit of bitterness,” says Maj. Francois Dufault, deputy commander of Canada’s last deployed battle group.
“We’re battling for the last period but we will not be able to touch the Stanley Cup, because the Americans or other contributors will raise the cup in the air while we’ll be out in the bleachers watching.”
It’s a sentiment heard often among troops who are finally seeing the fruits of the Canadian effort — cultivated in blood, limb and sweat —finally begin to ripen.
While progress can be measured in part by the dramatic decline in deaths and injuries over the past 10 months, perhaps the more important measure is in the stark changes on the ground — changes often lost on the Canadian public back home.
There is little doubt that Canadian troops have brought an air of security to the areas in which they now operate, mostly Dand and the once seemingly implacable Panjwaii district.
Two years ago, for example, Canadians dared only enter the hostile Panjwaii town of Salavat with a full battle group of soldiers, tanks and other heavy machinery of war.
The moment they withdrew, the insurgents swept back in.
Today, the soldiers stroll the laneways of the town in small groups, watching hundreds of kids make their way each day to school. They kibbitz with residents and elders. They talk about governance and development.
A road — a Canadian initiative — runs the length of Panjwaii into areas soldiers seldom ventured even six months ago. The road ends in a village Canadians were forced by frequent insurgent attacks to abandon three years ago.
A trip of several kilometres between the operating bases of Sperwan Ghar and Ma’sum Ghar, something that used to take hours of painstaking checking for IEDs, is now quick and routine.
Afghan soldiers and police patrol regularly. District and local leaders offer a semblance of governance.
All of this has been made possible by the surge in American troops, more Afghan soldiers and police, and the drastic reduction in Canada’s area of operations.
Gone are the intractable districts of Arghandab and Zhari that cost so many Canadian lives. Gone is the seething city of Kandahar.
Gone is the fire-brigade approach: Put out part of a forest fire and rush to the next hot spot even as the previous one flares.
That 155 Canadians have died on the mission, and more than 650 were wounded in combat, has prompted criticism that the years the troops spent seemingly spinning their wheels were a waste of lives and effort.
Col. Acton Kilby, director of stabilization at regional command south headquarters, flatly rejects that notion.
Canada, he said, ensured the south “was not completely lost.”
“Had we not done that, we could have surged, but we would have been faced with a problem and dynamic that would have been exponentially more difficult,” Kilby says.
Lt.-Col. Peter Devlin, chief of land staff, says the stature of the Canadian military has grown immeasurably both at home and abroad because of the country’s contribution to the Afghan war effort.
The troops have developed a hard-won skill set they could not have learned any other way.
Still, how much of Canada’s current on-the-ground success will endure beyond the July 31 end date for its combat operations remains to be seen. Peace, after all, remains elusive.
And, of course, the small area Canada now operates in and is set to leave is just a fractional part of a still-roiling Afghanistan.
Despite some strong individual bonds forged, Dufault doubts the Afghans in the south will remember the sacrifices Canadians made.
“Definitely, the short-term memory of Afghan people will probably be of the Americans — it bothers me a little bit.”
Still, he says, the Canadian blood spilled — including that of some of his own men and friends — has been for a purpose.
“Any soldier who’s lost his life here has not died in vain — they made us proud,” Dufault says.
“I miss them. At the same time, I know they died doing something they liked.”