NATO readies for last stand in Afghanistan

An ambitious push by the international community to set up an endgame in Afghanistan will hinge on its ability to break the Taliban insurgency around the country’s urban areas.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — An ambitious push by the international community to set up an endgame in Afghanistan will hinge on its ability to break the Taliban insurgency around the country’s urban areas.

No urban area is more important than Kandahar city.

With U.S. President Barack Obama expected this week to announce a dramatic increase in the number of U.S .troops in Afghanistan, the Canadian contingent in Kandahar is already preparing the groundwork for the new strategy.

The bulk of the new troops—estimates range between 20,000 and 40,000—will reportedly be deployed in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s centre of operations.

NATO commanders in the south have indicated they plan to establish a protective perimeter around Kandahar city, where 330 Canadian soldiers and civilians are in charge of security and development efforts.

For several weeks, Canadian troops have been updating intelligence on the city’s neighbourhoods and conducting disrupt operations in outlying areas.

“One of the areas where we need to do better work is understanding Kandahar city,” said Lt. Col. Carl Turenne, commanding officer of the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team.

“I am already refocusing to make sure we get much more out of the city.”

Senior Canadian military and civilian officials are reluctant to speak about the potential implications of a surge in American troops and say NATO’s orders have yet to be finalized.

But given the sustained Canadian presence in the city it is almost certain the PRT will play a leading role in implementing U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s plan to refocus NATO’s counter-insurgency strategy on population centres.

The Canadian military has recently taken a lead in bolstering the coalition’s information about the political and security dynamics of the city.

Meanwhile, the civilian side of the PRT will be the prime beneficiary of NATO’s intention to create a security ring around Kandahar and then flood the centre with development.

“If it’s an ISAF commander priority, that goes down the chain” said Jess Dutton, the PRT civilian director. “It means more resources so we can do our job better.”

Though Canada will likely be central in the push to improve security in Kandahar, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that was unlikely to influence plans to end the military mission in 2011.

“I don’t sense any desire on the part of parliamentarians to do that,” he told reporters at the Commonwealth summit in Trinidad and Tobago.

“We’re right now examining how Canada can move forward with enhanced civilian presence, a focus on development and humanitarian aid.”

As NATO members await details of Obama’s plans for Afghanistan, they’re keen to establish the parameters of an eventual withdrawal of international forces.

While at the Commonwealth summit, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced plans to hold a conference in January that would establish benchmarks for the gradual handover of Afghanistan’s security to local forces.

In many regards, the decision by Canadian military commanders to prioritize Kandahar city marks a new line in the sand. Additional U.S. troops in Kandahar this summer had prompted the Canadian to focus their efforts in the rural areas southwest of the city.

The city, the second largest in Afghanistan, has long-enjoyed a prominent role in Afghanistan’s history, thanks largely to its location at the crossroads of trade routes from Pakistan.

Now Kandahar city is considered ground zero of the Canadian counter-insurgency effort.

Analysts believe the Taliban is trying to destabilize the Afghan government by targeting cities. Kandahar city itself was the site of repeated attacks in the run-up to the August presidential election. A massive car bomb rocked the city later that month, killing more than 40 people.

But the current security situation in Kandahar city is the subject of considerable debate.

According to Turenne, the city has been relatively calm since the August bombing.

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