Afghanistan's insurgency can be defeated within two or three years, a top Canadian commander said yesterday, offering a more hopeful view of the situation than other suggestions that Canadian troops would keep fighting for two decades.
Colonel Steve Bowes, commander of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar, said the extremist militias that plague rural Afghanistan could be eliminated much faster than previously estimated if international donors help the country recover from years of war.
"It could take two years, best-case scenario," Col. Bowes said. As he spoke, his soldiers were patrolling the streets of Kandahar, handing out posters to thank people for remaining calm during last week's potentially volatile elections.
The commander emphasized that he wasn't trying to contradict Major-General Andrew Leslie, who was widely reported last month as saying that Canadian troops will continue fighting in Afghanistan for the next 20 years.
Several top officials have been issuing similar warnings recently, trying to prepare the public for a long, bloody struggle as the number of Canadian troops in Afghanistan grows to 1,500 by February.
Col. Bowes said his biggest worry is that Canadians will lose patience with such a large commitment of forces halfway around the world. While the homegrown insurgency might be defeated within two or three years, he said, lingering threats -- such as attacks from militants in Pakistan -- will probably require a strong foreign military presence for three to five years. After that, he said, the majority of Canada's help for Afghanistan should involve something other than heavily armed infantry.
(The federal government's only official commitment of troops ends in February of 2007.)
The first steps, Col. Bowes said, are providing security and training to Afghanistan's own soldiers and police. Then the focus would shift toward reforming the justice system and encouraging foreign donors that it's safe enough to start rebuilding the country, he said.
That should provide jobs for young men who might otherwise work for the Taliban, al-Qaeda or other extremist groups, he said.
But the soldiers in Kandahar aren't waiting for prosperity to win Afghans' trust. They're also running Canada's largest propaganda campaign since the Second World War, using a Montreal-based group of specialists known as Canadian Psychological Operations, or PsyOps.
"This whole mission is based around the concept of information operations," Col. Bowes said. "We have to extend the authority of the Afghan government, because we want to avoid a relapse into a failed state."
During the weekend, that meant sending patrols to the remote town of Spin Boldak, near the Pakistani border, and to other locations around Kandahar.
The PsyOps team, led by Sergeant Regi Obas, loaded its Mercedes-Benz military SUVs with stacks of colourful newspapers, posters and brochures in the local languages of Dari and Pashtun. Surrounded by escort vehicles with gun turrets, they bounced down rutted roads in the countryside and wove through city markets crowded with children, vendors and goats.
The leaflets were simple: glossy pictures of children and white doves, with the slogan, "Your votes will make your future. Congratulations for voting."
In some places, people mobbed the soldiers handing them out.
"You have to consider that these are poor people, and we're giving them something colourful for free," said PsyOps team member Master Corporal Kevin Langlois.
To test its product, the team pulled aside several people who couldn't read to see how well the images were understood in a country where four out of five people can't read.
A bearded man wearing brown robes furrowed his deeply creased brow when shown the leaflets.
"He understood the part about the peaceful election," said translator Himayat Rashidi, 21. "But he thought the pictures of kids had something to do with education."
The flyers may require some tweaking, the team concluded. But they continued handing them out anyway, figuring the message was still positive.
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