By late spring or early summer, Canada will be at "the tip of the spear" of NATO's efforts in Afghanistan, leading a massive push in Kandahar province on the scale of this month's attacks in nearby Helmand, a top coalition soldier says.
Canadian Brigadier-General Craig King, the coalition's director of future plans in Afghanistan's volatile south, said allied forces and government agencies are preparing for an attack that will take place in the coming months, and draw largely from the playbook of this month's assault on Marjah and Nad Ali in Helmand in a bid to push the Taliban from restive pockets in Kandahar province.
"I think we need to be prepared that there's going to be an increase in activity in and around Kandahar. The Canadians are going to be very actively engaged in that, just as the marines and the British are right now in central Helmand," said Gen. King, himself a Canadian.
"We are going to be, come the summer, the tip of the spear for Afghanistan here. [Fighting]is going to shift to Kandahar, and the Canadians are going to be, along with our American allies, right at the forefront of that spear."
Gen. King's comments come as Kandahar's governor, Tooryalai Wesa, met Tuesday in Kabul with government and military leaders about the Helmand push, dubbed Operation Moshtarak. Mr. Wesa is seeking assurances that the coalition will correct its Helmand "mistakes [and]misinterpretations," referring to the 15 civilians that have been reportedly killed since Moshtarak launched Saturday.
"Hopefully, this will not happen [in Kandahar]like it happened in Helmand," he said. "Hopefully, the casualties will be minimized. The lessons we're learning from Helmand will be very useful for us."
The International Security Assistance Force took a civilian-first approach to Operation Moshtarak, dropping leaflets warning of a coming fight and scheduling shuras , or tribal gatherings, to build trust in the community - all before a shot was fired. When soldiers did arrive, half were from the Afghan National Army.
That strategy isn't without its flaws. Coalition forces are being slowed in Marjah by a vast network of makeshift bombs, planted during the weeks of warning. Nevertheless, Gen. King said a Kandahar offensive will likely follow the same publicity strategy, to build trust and urge civilians and Taliban alike to leave.
ISAF will again face the ugly task of fighting Taliban amid a civilian population. In Marjah, coalition soldiers have complained that Taliban fighters are taking shelter among civilians, preventing coalition soldiers from firing at them.
Operation Moshtarak and the looming Kandahar offensive were made possible by a surge of American troops into the country. Gen. King is awaiting the "troop density" provided by the imminent arrival of the 101st Airborne's second brigade into Kandahar. Asked whether a Kandahar attack would be on the same scale as the 15,000 troops involved in Moshtarak, itself considered one of the war's biggest offensives, Gen. King said that in "broad strokes" it would.
"There's a lot of moving bits to this," he said. "It's going to be an extremely busy summer."
The attack will "springboard" off of the "tremendous" work done by Canada and others so far in Kandahar, he said. The mission will target areas in western Panjwai and Zhari districts, among others currently considered "no-go zones," he said.
Canadian Brigadier-General Daniel Ménard, commander of the coalition's Task Force Kandahar, has said four key, but unpublicized, areas will be targeted in a summer attack built to "break the back" of the Taliban.
Mr. Wesa said his office is already beginning preparations about the logistics of bringing government to formerly Taliban-controlled areas secured by a Kandahar push. A similar move was taken in Marjah, where ISAF commander Stanley McChrystal's so-called "government in a box" approach has seen police and civil servants stream in directly behind troops.
"It is all done within a context that is designed to build and hold a security zone so the governance can take effect, and so the government of Afghanistan can extend its authority to protect the people," Gen. King said.
"It has been said, and I firmly believe this, that there is no military solution to Afghanistan. It is not until you get the government and the governance … in place to support the people in a way that they want to be governed that you have a lasting and enduring effect. … It sounds almost Kennedyesque with some of the phrases, but I've got to tell you - it's the way it is. You've got to connect with the people."
Paul Fishstein, the former director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit in Kabul, said it was too early to say wheth Operation Moshtarak, and, as such, any Kandahar attack, will win the hearts of the people and succeed in implementing government - a task in which countless other previous attacks have failed.
"We all know that over the last several years there have been many operations which have expelled insurgents from an area, but the real key is what happens afterwards," Mr. Fishstein, now a fellow of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, said in an e-mail.
"It will be important that whatever is inside that [government in a]box be able to connect with the local population in a positive, meaningful way."