A trip by Canada's top soldier in Afghanistan to the model community where troops are implementing a long-term security strategy turned into a lesson on the limits of Canadian tolerance.
As General Jonathan Vance was driving this morning into the village of Deh-e-Bagh in the Dand district, southwest of Kandahar city, the shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade hit one of the armoured vehicles in his convoy. And, when Gen. Vance had travelled about a kilometre past the village on the way to another community where the Canadians hope to implement the same secure-and-stay policy they have used in Deh-e-Bagh, an oncoming Canadian military vehicle was ripped by a bomb planted in the road.
A Canadian soldier had to be airlifted to hospital with multiple fractures to his leg. The troops who tended to him said his wounds will heal.
But Gen. Vance was steaming.
"It infuriates me," he said after ordering the convoy to return to Deh-E-Bagh so he could lambaste the local people for not warning the Canadians about the explosive trap set by the Taliban. "A determined person can still get through," the general said of the safety perimeter that the Canadian troops have established at the village. "But we rely on the work of the local population."
Gen. Vance called an immediate meeting, known as a shura, with Deh-E-Bagh's elders. "It's a sad and serious day," he told the 24 Afghan men who turned out to the district centre to hear what the general had to say. "Why is it I feel that I am the only one, with my soldiers, who is taking responsibility for security?" Gen. Vance asked. "I am saddened sometimes on days when I feel I am more concerned about Dand district than you are."
Over the course of the 50-minute meeting, Gen. Vance told the elders they and their people had to be more vigilant. His plan, he said, is to secure many more villages the way he has secured Deh-E-Bagh. "I can't do that until the lands behind me are safe."
And he made it clear he was unwilling to sacrifice more Canadian lives. "If we keep blowing up on the roads, I am going to stop doing development," said Gen. Vance. "If we stop doing development in Dand, then I believe Afghanistan and Kandahar is a project that cannot be saved."
After arguing that they were not permitted outside their homes at night to watch for Taliban - something the Canadians said is not true -the men of Deh-e-Bagh praised the work of the Canadians. One said he was ashamed that there had been attacks on their "guests." And they promised to watch for insurgent activity.
Before the general and his convoy had left the compound, the local chief of police and a security officer approached him to say they suspected a man from a neighbouring village of being complicit in the crime. His uncles are Taliban, they said, his brother was blown up trying to plant a bomb, his own toes were mysteriously blown off, and he seemed to know where explosives had been planted. He also worked occasionally with the police, which complicated matters a little.
The man was taken into custody for questioning by the Canadians. So, rather than head out to another spot where the secure-and stay approach is being implemented, the general's convoy returned to the Kandahar Air Field with the prisoner.
"I think it's critical, especially where a Canadian soldier is injured, that we follow up," said Gen. Vance before the vehicles departed. "We simply can't and won't operate here without making absolutely certain that people know that we are committed and that, if a soldier has been hurt, we expect some support and assistance from them, their security forces and their government."