Canadian troops formally end five years of combat and counterinsurgency in the dust-blown badlands of southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, heading home in the midst of a guerrilla war of steadily intensifying violence.
They do not leave with any illusions that they have done more than create some breathing space for the Afghan government to assert itself. Nor do they venture any predictions beyond saying that they may have weakened, perhaps only fleetingly, the resilient Taliban insurgency. That realism is perhaps their strongest legacy for the allies who will continue the fight.
“We are involved in a contest of wills,” said Lieutenant Colonel Michel-Henri St-Louis, the commander of the last battle group, the 1st Battalion 22nd Regiment, known as the Van Doos.
“What you have is a political problem,” he added in a recent interview. “You can’t kill an idea, and you can’t kill everyone that disagrees with the government. All you can do is show that there is an alternative.”
Canada’s years in Kandahar were a war within that larger war, though it was fought on one of its least hospitable battlegrounds. The fight cost the lives of 157 Canadian men and women. Year after year, successive Canadian battle groups chased shadows across Kandahar’s orchards and villages, losing soldiers to mines and gunfire from an enemy that seemed to vanish from one spot only to reappear somewhere else.
During the past year, reinforced by an infusion of more than 10,000 American and Afghan soldiers, the last battalion could point to some gains: record numbers of hidden weapons found this spring, a drop in attacks on their outposts, the implantation of a district government and children permitted to attend a newly refurbished school.
At the same time, much of the countryside they leave behind still teeters on the edge of Taliban control. Kandahar city, the sprawling urban centre they were to defend at all costs, has become the murder capital of a country where violent death is a daily fact of life.
Canada entered the war after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when the United States invoked the collective defence provisions of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to launch strikes on the Taliban regime that was harbouring Osama bin Laden.
When the NATO mission extended beyond the capital of Kabul, Canadian forces took on Kandahar province, where the Taliban movement was born. In 2006, they fought a pitched battle with insurgents to protect Kandahar city. Operation Medusa, as it was called, was the first and last fight with any resemblance to conventional warfare.
In the years that followed, the Taliban shifted tactics in Kandahar and elsewhere in Afghanistan. Homemade bombs, hit-and-run sniper attacks and rockets fired at Canadian outposts became the template for the war. A flourishing drug trade, corruption and tribal vengeance created an overlay of dangerous rivalries that fuelled more violence that endangered Canada’s overstretched troops.
While their departure date was decided three years ago in Ottawa, it has turned out to be the prologue to the end of the larger multinational war. The same weariness that drove Canada’s 2008 decision to withdraw – weariness with mounting casualties and with the chronically feeble Afghan government – is now evident in its allies.
In Europe, other NATO leaders say they will follow suit and start downsizing their troop levels this summer. The United States, with nearly 100,000 soldiers in the country, will pull out more than one-third of its forces by next September.
When Major Martin Larose, the senior operations officer for the Van Doos, arrived for his second tour in Afghanistan last fall, an offensive was in full swing to disrupt Taliban movements and supply lines in the districts surrounding Kandahar city.
It seemed the Canadians could turn a corner in their frustrating hit-and-run war. The United States had more than doubled its troops on the ground, with most of the newly deployed soldiers in the restive south. The Afghan army in the province had acquired three brigades with some 2,500 newly trained soldiers.
The Van Doos were assigned a concentrated piece of territory in the Panjwai district, a Taliban stronghold that had been a killing ground for Canadian troops for years. In an interview in late December, about a month into the operation, Major Larose was buoyant about the prospects for tangible progress.
“In 2006, we had one battle group for almost all of Kandahar province, and we were just putting out fires,” he said then. “My company had an area of 150 kilometres by 90 kilometres and we were hopping left and right.”
This time, he predicted, the Canadians would focus their muscle in one manageable swath of territory. They would build a paved roadway to replace the old switch-back gravel roads that were mined-laced death traps. Afghans would be grateful. And as local government had a chance to establish a presence in Panjwai, people would reject the Taliban and their weakened fighters would slink away.
Clear, hold and build – classic counterinsurgency doctrine. Protect the population, help create accountable governance, sink your teeth into the insurgents “and don’t let go,” as U.S. General David Petraeus, the outgoing NATO commander in Afghanistan, instructed coalition forces last August.
As his tour began, Major Larose was hoping he and the Van Doos might see those steps through. “The way we’re going to tackle this,” he predicted, “is to show them we are going to stay, and to create conditions for Afghans to see an alternative to the insurgents.”
Seven months later, as the battalion was preparing to leave Canada’s longest combat engagement since the Second World War, the major had a more measured assessment of its impact on both the insurgency and the Afghans.
“You clear. You hold. And the holding can be long. It can be two or three years,” Major Larose said. “It depends on the local powerbrokers, on the approach. It takes a long time for the population to trust you. The problem is that the insurgents come back, because you cannot be everywhere at once. There’s only so much you can do.”