Canada's final summer of combat in Kandahar will be marked by intense fighting, the commander of Canadian Forces overseas said Tuesday, striking a markedly different tone from the one he gave just over a month ago.
Lt.-Gen. Marc Lessard, the head of Canadian Expeditionary Force Command, said insurgent activity has increased significantly since his last visit to Kandahar Airfield in early May.
"It's going to be a very tough summer. Enemy activity is significant," Lt.-Gen. Lessard told reporters at the base. "But we're maintaining our presence not only to counter the insurgency but to keep the link with the population."
Lt.-Gen. Lessard said there is a stronger insurgent presence in the rural districts that border Kandahar city - such as Arghandab, Zhari and Panjwaii - where the Taliban have been responsible for a rash of violence in a region they consider their spiritual homeland.
"I think it has less to do with increased insurgents in Afghanistan but more about insurgent flexibility to move from one region or one province to another," Lt.-Gen. Lessard said.
In recent weeks, there have been a series of bombings throughout Kandahar province including one last week that killed 40 people at a wedding celebration in Arghandab.
There were 51 coalition deaths in May compared with 33 in April. And the number of coalition fatalities this month is on pace to surpass last month's total, with at least 40 killed so far - most of whom are American troops.
During his last visit to Afghanistan six weeks ago, Lt.-Gen. Lessard said the Canadian military would strive to avoid large-scale fighting with the Taliban this summer while concentrating on operations aimed at building public confidence in local governance.
He said that was still the aim, despite the increased enemy presence.
"The intent has not changed," he said. "What has changed to some degree is enemy activity in the districts has increased, so that means we have to be more vigilant."
Canadian troops and American and Afghan security forces under their command are increasingly coming across improvised explosive devices and engaging in shootouts with the Taliban.
Such an upswing in violence is not unusual this time of year, when the completion of the opium harvest marks the beginning of the so-called fighting season. Militants, many from other countries such as Pakistan, pick up guns and plant IEDs in an effort to rattle NATO forces and intimidate the local population.
Lt.-Gen. Lessard finished a five-day tour that included visits to forward operating bases and combat outposts. There are about 2,800 Canadian Forces personnel in Afghanistan. Their military mission is scheduled to end in July 2011.
Lt.-Gen. Lessard was unequivocal about what can and cannot be accomplished before the pullout.
"Security to permit governance, good enough governance, will not be achieved by July 2011," he said, though he added that the Canadian military would continue to work on improving security until Canada hands over duties to another allied force.
With planning for wrapping up the mission already underway - such as the logistics of moving hundreds of vehicles and thousands of sea containers - Lt.-Gen. Lessard turned his thoughts momentarily to Canada's record in Kandahar.
"Our legacy is we held the ground here," he said.
"There is no way, no way the Afghan security forces could've held Kandahar city and its immediate surroundings had we not been here."