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Canadian commander ends Afghan role with warning and optimism

SENJARAY, Afghanistan — Western patience with Afghanistan’s political class was wearing so dangerously thin that coalition forces might quit the country if the situation regarding governance and corruption did not soon change radically for the better.

That was Brig.-Gen. Jonathan Vance’s stark warning to leaders in Panjwaii and Zhari districts during one of his last battlefield tours before the end of his 10-month command, which is only days away.

“The international community is going to demand honesty, integrity and good performance from all levels of government or we won’t stay,” Canada’s top commander in Afghanistan said at one of several meetings he held last week in two of the notoriously volatile districts west of Kandahar City.

“We have lost too many soldiers and spent too much of our people’s money to stay if there is not honest co-operation.

“Our public accepts us here and is deciding right now whether we will stay. Canadians, Americans, the British — everyone is wondering whether it is worth it to stay.”

Brig.-Gen. Vance’s words were little different than those delivered to Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government recently by senior U.S. political leaders and by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

However, his message had a special resonance in Panjwaii and Zhari, where more than 100 Canadians have been killed since 2006.

By moonlight at the end of what was an 18-hour day, as his convoy waited for Canadian sappers to defuse a landmine on the road between the Taliban hotbed of Senjaray and Kandahar City, Brig.-Gen. Vance discussed what he had told the leaders and where he thinks Canada’s war in southern Afghanistan is at.

“I am not frustrated at all. But it is a challenge,” the 45-year-old infantryman said in the first interview he has given to mark the end of his tenure at the helm of Task Force Afghanistan.

“I think we have achieved everything, tactically, that we set out to. I feel that the coalition is going to achieve great things. More Afghans are going to be safe and the country is going to begin to recover.”

However, Brig.-Gen. Vance was deeply worried that if the military successes were not matched on the political side, a great opportunity to defeat the Taliban would be lost.

“What I am hoping for is a political environment where there is the courage to govern correctly and to take responsibility for the insurgency,” he said as he sat in full battle regalia on a rock-strewn stoop. “I was hoping that postelection there would be a real surge of political renewal, but that is still a question mark.”

Canada’s fifth general to command in Kandahar, Brig.-Gen. Vance has earned a reputation as a warrior, tactician and strategist. The “model village” program that was developed on his watch has become the NATO template, earning the public admiration of NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who oversees the Afghan war for the alliance.

When a colonel in Kabul familiar with NATO operations across the South was asked what would be the best thing that Canada could do to make its mission in Kandahar a success his succinct answer was: “Just leave Jon Vance there for two more years.”

Told of this high praise, Brig.-Gen. Vance replied: “Others before me did not have the factors in place that would have allowed them to execute this.” He was referring to the arrival in Kandahar of a U.S. army battalion last summer and of three more U.S. battalions this summer, which allowed Canada to reduce its area of operations by about 60%.

The result of the influx has been that where for three years Canada’s 1,200 combat troops were like Hans Brinker’s Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, holding the Taliban back across an area the size of New Brunswick, since this summer they have been able to focus all their efforts just to the west and southwest of Kandahar City, which remains the prize that the Taliban wants more than anything else.

Starting with Deh-e-Bagh, followed by three other communities in Dand District, the Canadians have for the first time seized an area and made it safe enough for economic development to start while helping the Afghan government open schools and clinics. As of this weekend, nearly 1,000 Afghans were working where nobody had a job a few months ago.

“There are now the broad strokes of a counter-insurgency operation,” Vance said. “We protect the population and hit the enemy when we must. Sustainable development was always our intention. We just happened to be privileged to be on the ground when this all came together.”

But Brig.-Gen. Vance’s tour has not all been about young Canadians singing Kumbaya with Afghan villagers. Canada’s battle group has undertaken more than twice as many combat operations than previous rotations and the 200 troops it has advising the Afghan army have been in numerous firefights.

While 24 Canadians have died during Brig.-Gen. Vance’s command, there has always been a great reluctance here to talk about enemy body counts. However, when asked directly if it was true that his troops had killed more than 1,000 insurgents in the past few months, Brig.-Gen. Vance quietly confirmed that “that’s about right.”

But the Taliban have proven extremely resilient, bouncing back sometimes within hours in the exact spot where they have suffered severe losses. Nevertheless, Brig.-Gen. Vance was optimistic about the future.

“There are still many years before Afghanistan can stand up on its own, but it is achievable,” he said. “Not everything needs to be done in the next year and a half but we need to demonstrate clear and decisive progress in the districts and this must be connected to progress at the provincial and national levels.

“We are going to get to the zenith of the tactical effect in 12 to 18 months. But if we have tactical success absent a healthy governing environment, it will be much harder for Afghanistan to rally. It is important that leaders at all levels here are seized by this matter. Our tolerance to act here if we are without a solid, altruistic partner, would be in jeopardy.”

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Canadians could face eye scans at border

Washington is turning to the next item on its security agenda: eye scans.

With the last of about 600 northern border radiation detectors having been installed at Trout River, N.Y., on the Quebec border, completing a continent-wide shield aimed at repelling the smuggling of nuclear bombs, dirty bombs and other malicious nuclear materials from Canada, every car, truck and passenger entering the United States by land from Canada is searched for nuclear weapons.

Now, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security proposes to spend billions of dollars collecting fingerprints and eye scans from all foreign travellers at U.S. airports as they leave the country.

Already, the United States demands biometric data, typically fingerprints and digital photos, from arriving air and sea travellers with visas. The chief aim is to try to ensure the person matches the individual who was given the visa overseas. Canadians and Mexicans are currently exempt.

Supporters of the proposed biometric exit check argue it will, among other things, enable officials to check a person’s biometrics against a watch list of known and suspected terrorists, criminals and immigration violators.

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Opponents, however, question the logic and expense of looking for terrorists leaving the country. The Washington Post, which reported the story yesterday, said the program would not operate “for now” at U.S. land borders.

Most experts believe there is a low probability that terrorists could muster the technical sophistication and complex planning needed to pull off a nuclear strike on U.S. soil, yet Osama bin Laden has made it clear that is al-Qaeda’s plan.

Even a small chance of that happening is one of the great worries of U.S. leaders and many security officials, magnified by the political strife in nuclear-armed Pakistan, where al-Qaeda’s core command has taken sanctuary.

Preventing terrorists from detonating a nuclear weapon in a major U.S. city is therefore a key national security priority, with more than US$3-billion spent since 2002 on nuclear monitors alone at Canadian and Mexican land border crossings and U.S. seaports.

Janet Napolitano, the U.S. Homeland Security Secretary, hails the completion of the Canadian component of the border radiation detectors, two months ahead of schedule, as a “major security milestone.

“This technology enhances our capability to guard against terrorism and criminal threats while expediting border crossings for lawful trade and travel,” she said in a statement.

However, the effectiveness of the U.S. radiation monitors is debatable.

The “non-intrusive” monitors are erected alongside the car-lane approaches to customs’ booth inspections, with larger monitors for transport trucks stationed in cargo inspection areas. Each detects certain types of energy within a limited area but not the exact radioactive source.

For that, a suspect vehicle is sent for a secondary inspection that includes a scan with a hand-held detection device to identify the source and whether it constitutes a threat. Benign emissions from lingering medical isotopes in people’s bodies, scrap metal, natural sources of radiation and even Kitty Litter trigger frequent false alarms.

Reducing them and the accompanying border-crossing delays with the current polyvinyl toluene (PVT) monitors would mean re-calibrating their detection threshold, or sensitivity. But uranium-235, which in a concentrated, highly enriched form becomes weapons-grade uranium, is already weak radioactively, and reducing the monitors’ threshold would make detection more difficult.

What’s more, PVT monitors can only detect unshielded or lightly shielded sources, which seems unrealistic, considering the sophisticated smuggling tactics determined nuclear terrorists would likely employ.

The United States is instead debating the cost-effectiveness of replacing PVT technology with “advanced spectroscopic portals” or ASP, a new type of portal monitor designed to both detect radiation and identify the source.

The U.S. Government Accounting Office reports that ASP monitors use more sophisticated software, and have a more extensive library of radiation signatures that may provide more consistent and rapid screening and may increase the likelihood of correct identification. But they’re also almost three times more expensive than PVT monitors.

In the meantime, the United States says the PVT monitors are now scanning 100% of all vehicle traffic entering from Canada and Mexico, plus all mail and courier packages from Mexico and a further 98% of all arriving seaborne container cargo.

NATO, Afghans claim to kill 130 Taliban in Kunduz

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan – NATO and Afghan officials claimed on Monday their forces had killed at least 130 Taliban fighters in a major operation over the past week in an area of Afghanistan’s north where militant activity has surged.

A combined force of 700 Afghan troops and 50 NATO soldiers cleared villages of fighters, killing more than 130 insurgents including eight Taliban commanders during a five-day operation, NATO spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Todd Vician said.

Kunduz province governor Mohammad Omar told Reuters the combined force had killed 133 fighters during the operation, which took place in and around Kunduz’s Char Dara district.

However, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said only five fighters had died, and called the death toll given by NATO and Afghan officials "propaganda."

The NATO-led force deployed air strikes against armed insurgents but believed no civilians were among those killed, Vician said. No NATO or Afghan troops were killed, he added.

Kunduz province is mainly patrolled by the NATO force’s German contingent, which has failed to prevent Taliban fighters from taking control of many rural villages in recent months.

Its Char Dara district was the site of the deadliest incident involving German troops since World War Two. In early September, a German officer ordered a U.S. air strike that the Afghan government says killed 30 civilians as well as 69 fighters.

Germany acknowledged this week for the first time that civilians were killed in that strike and not all procedures were followed correctly, but says an air strike was nonetheless needed to prevent a suicide attack by fighters in stolen fuel trucks.

That incident also drew attention to the rapid spread of Taliban control in Kunduz, one of the provinces where NATO says insurgents have made gains this year, spreading out of southern and eastern bases into once-quiet northern and western areas.

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U.S. completes border system to monitor cars for nukes

OTTAWA – Every car, truck and passenger entering the United States by land from Canada is now searched for nuclear weapons.

The last of about 600 northern border radiation detectors has been installed at Trout River, N.Y., on the Quebec border, completing a continentwide shield aimed at repelling the smuggling of nuclear bombs, dirty bombs and other malicious nuclear materials from Canada.

Most experts believe there is a low probability that terrorists could muster the technical sophistication and complex planning needed to pull off a strike on U.S. soil, yet Osama bin Laden has made it clear that al-Qaida wants to nuke the U.S.

Even a small chance of that happening is one of the great worries of U.S. leaders and many security officials, magnified by the political strife in nuclear-armed Pakistan, where al-Qaida’s core command has taken sanctuary.

Preventing terrorists from detonating a nuclear weapon in a major U.S. city is therefore a key national security priority, with more than $3 billion US spent since 2002 on nuclear monitors alone at Canadian and Mexican land border crossings and U.S. seaports.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano hails the completion of the Canadian component, two months ahead of schedule, as a “major security milestone.

“This technology enhances our capability to guard against terrorism and criminal threats while expediting border crossings for lawful trade and travel,” she said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the effectiveness of the U.S. radiation monitors is debatable.

The “non-intrusive” monitors are erected alongside the car lane approaches to customs’ booth inspections, with larger monitors for transport trucks stationed in cargo inspection areas. Each detects certain types of energy within a limited area but not the exact radioactive source.

For that, a suspect vehicle is sent for a secondary inspection that includes a scan with a hand-held detection device to identify the source and whether it constitutes a threat. Benign emissions from lingering medical isotopes in people’s bodies, scrap metal, natural sources of radiation and even Kitty Litter trigger frequent false alarms.

Reducing them and the accompanying border-crossing delays with the current polyvinyl toluene (PVT) monitors would mean re-calibrating their detection threshold, or sensitivity. But uranium-235, which in a concentrated, highly enriched form becomes weapons-grade uranium, is already weak radioactively, and reducing the monitors’ threshold would make detection more difficult.

What’s more, PVT monitors can only detect unshielded or lightly shielded sources, which seems unrealistic, considering the sophisticated smuggling tactics determined nuclear terrorists would likely employ.

The U.S. is instead debating the cost-effectiveness of replacing PVT technology with “advanced spectroscopic portals” or ASP, a new type of portal monitor designed to both detect radiation and identify the source.

The U.S. Government Accounting Office reports that ASP monitors use more sophisticated software, and have a more extensive library of radiation signatures that may provide more consistent and rapid screening and may increase the likelihood of correct identification. But they’re also almost three times more expensive than PVT monitors.

In the meantime, the U.S. says the PVT monitors are now scanning 100 per cent of all vehicle traffic entering from Canada and Mexico, plus all mail and courier packages from Mexico and a further 98 per cent of all arriving seaborne container cargo.

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Canada should have abandoned seasonal flu shot to focus on H1N1: critics

With H1N1 now accounting for virtually all the flu being diagnosed in Canada, critics say Canada was wrong not to have halted production of the regular seasonal flu shots and switched production to H1N1 vaccine sooner.

"I believe that if they had made the bold and courageous decision to follow the evidence, and abandon the seasonal flu vaccine, that we could have had our H1N1 vaccine about six weeks earlier," says Dr. Richard Schabas, Ontario’s former chief medical officer of health.

"The consequence of that is that we’ve got lots of seasonal flu vaccine, but no seasonal flu, and not enough H1N1 vaccine, and lots of H1N1," Schabas said. "It’s backwards."

For the week ending Oct. 31, a total of 7,970 specimens tested positive for influenza. Overall, 99.7 per cent were pandemic H1N1. Infections and hospitalizations have been increasing, and most provinces and territories have delayed all or parts of their regular seasonal influenza programs until after the H1N1 vaccination campaign is complete.

Schabas said there were early signals H1N1 would be the dominant strain this flu season. A phenomenon known as "strain replacement," where the new virus replaces old ones that had been circulating, is a classic characteristic of a pandemic virus.

"That’s what happened in 1918, it’s what happened in 1957 and it’s what happened in 1968," says Schabas, now medical officer of health for Ontario’s Hastings and Prince Edward Counties Health Unit.

In the Southern Hemisphere, where the flu season runs from April to September, H1N1 began to be prevalent in May, and then increasingly became the predominant strain.

"There was strong reason to believe that there would be strain replacement, that we would not see significant levels of seasonal flu activity this year," Schabas said. He said enough seasonal flu vaccine could have been produced to offer immunization to people over 65, and those with chronic diseases who are at high risk of flu complications, before shifting production to targeting H1N1.

"The best time to immunize is before the outbreak starts. We’re not going to actually be able to even offer the vaccine to healthy people until the outbreaks are largely over, at least in many parts of the country," Schabas said.

"That, to my mind, makes it inappropriate to be immunizing healthy people, at least in those parts of Canada where the outbreaks are already past the peaks," he said.

"By the time we’re able to offer it in Ontario, this outbreak will be past its peak in Ontario."

Canada’s top doctor said that when the decision was made in July to keep producing seasonal flu shots, some countries in the Southern Hemisphere were seeing as much seasonal influenza as H1N1.

"Once you stop the seasonal flu production, it is done," Dr. David Butler-Jones said at a recent media briefing.

"It meant . . . a short delay, in the H1N1 production, but it also means that we have, and will have seasonal flu vaccine for all those who need and want it as well.

"You would not want to be in a situation where, if we’d stopped it, we’d run out so we can’t actually immunize against seasonal flu, and we have people seriously ill and dying from seasonal flu."

Earl Brown, a University of Ottawa virologist, said it was not clear in the summer whether H1N1 would come back hard. As well, there were early problems with the seed strains used to grow the virus to produce the H1N1 vaccine.

"The first ones were bad and the next ones weren’t much better, and they had to work at it to get something that was even acceptable," said Brown, executive director of the Emerging Pathogens Research Centre at the University of Ottawa.

"Even if they said, ‘Let’s stop now and go,’ they weren’t ready to go. If they had stopped annual flu production, they would have been sitting there on their hands, with idle factories without any seasonal flu (vaccine)."

Seasonal flu epidemics typically last six to eight weeks, starting in December or January. The second wave of H1N1 appears to have begun about two weeks ago. But experts caution there isn’t a pattern that is strong enough to predict where we are with H1N1.

The World Health Organization reported Friday that "intense and persistent" flu spread continues to be reported in North America, without evidence of a peak in activity. According to WHO, the proportion of doctors visits due to flu-like illness has exceeded levels seen over the past six flu seasons.

Typically flu infects about 10 per cent of the population each year. In the 1918 influenza pandemic, half the North American population was infected.

"We don’t know how many people have been infected, or how this thing is going to go," Brown says.

But Brown cautions hysteria can drive people to the doctor when they don’t need to go. "You have to be careful in reading the things you normally use as signifiers, because sometimes they’re skewed because of behaviour changes.

"The things you can’t fake are the hospitalizations and the ICU (admissions). You can’t fake an ICU. You’re either on death’s door or not. Looking at those numbers; they’re not at the summer levels yet."

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