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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