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Canadian artillerymen fire their 155mm howitzer in support of front line troops in Afghanistan in 2007.

Ryan Remiorz

The message, cast in wet concrete by a single index finger, was as clear as they come: "All who work for the government will die."

It appeared on a building pillar across from Mohammed Bibi's corner store during the dark hours when locals stay indoors.

"I did not see who wrote it," says Mr. Bibi, a 40-year-old Kandahar resident with a neatly trimmed beard. "After 9, I close my shop. I am scared after that. If you are on the streets at night, you are either a Talib or a government worker and you could be shot. This we are told."

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He tells this to a soldier, Major Chris Lunney, leader of the Canadian Stabilization Company in the city, who nods his head.

"Do you have any other major concerns?" Major Lunney asks.

"Yes. Several days ago, they shot a guy over there," Mr. Bibi says, pointing down an alley of dust and low-hanging wires.

"Who did?"

"The insurgents. In the past few weeks, they shot four guys here. One over there, another over there and then an interpreter further down the street."

"This was all done by insurgents?"

"Yes, sir. We have many insurgents here."

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"Thank you for telling us that. We'll work on it."

Canada has been working on it for four years - fighting, building and dying in this sprawling labyrinth of mud-brick homes and minarets called Kandahar. And yet, for all the blood spilled, sweat shed and dollars spent, residents and military experts alike say Kandahar - Afghanistan's most strategically vital city - is more dangerous than ever.

Win, lose or draw, Kandahar is a milestone in Canada's military epic. When histories of this war are written, the name Kandahar will evoke some thread of Canada's narrative, just as Passchendaele or Juno do today. But will it suggest the mournful reflection of Dieppe? Or the pride of Vimy? The jury is still out.

Mr. Bibi, the shopkeeper, shares some lofty company in his bleak appraisal. U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, wrote in his strategic assessment of the country that the Taliban's "influence over the city and neighbouring districts is significant and growing."

The numbers bear him out. The federal government reported last month that 30 allied soldiers were killed in Kandahar over the summer during what was the bloodiest quarter in the entire eight years that coalition forces have been fighting in Afghanistan. The deaths in December of five soldiers and a journalist made 2009 the deadliest for Canadians since the first year of the Kandahar mission. Civilians deaths in the country as a whole were 10 per cent higher in 2009 than 2008.

INTO THE FIGHT

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Four short years ago, the picture was so much rosier. Canadian troops were pulling out of Camp Julien - their comfortable posting just outside Kabul - and began rolling south toward Kandahar. With a brash new chief of defence staff named Rick Hillier determined to show the world that soldiers known for keeping peace could battle alongside the world's best armies, they moved to Kandahar spoiling for a fight.

And they would get one.

Through the eyes of a military planner, Kandahar is Afghanistan's most important city. Situated at the hub of two valuable trade pipelines - Iran in the west, Pakistan and India in the east - it is the gateway to the rest of the country. It also carries national and spiritual resonance, both as the country's first capital and the homeland of the Taliban movement.

"It's a swinging gateway, and if you don't hold the key, it's impossible to control the country," says Howard Coombs, a military historian at the Royal Military College.

Canadians had laid eyes upon Kandahar's flat desert expanses and abrupt rocky ghars before. In 2002, Canadian Forces had helped the United States oust the Taliban regime from the area. But now the insurgents were back, and they were massing by the thousands.

"The Taliban was convinced that the Canadians were peacekeepers, not fighters," says David Isby, author of the forthcoming Afghanistan: a New History of the Borderland . "They didn't think the Canadians had the stomach for a long-term deployment."

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By the spring of 2006, Canadian Brigadier-General David Fraser had taken command of southern Afghanistan. With 2,200 Canadian troops amassed in the area, he emphasized that protecting development projects such as dams and schools - most administered by the Canada-led Provincial Reconstruction Team, or PRT - would be their main job.

"At first, it sounded like we would carry out a classic counterinsurgency strategy," said Pat Stogran, a retired Canadian colonel who served in Kandahar in 2002 and advised Forces brass on how they should tackle the region. "We would live in the villages and protect the people against the coming insurgency."

THE WRONG WAR

Two things conspired against that tack: the Taliban's anticipation of a frail Canadian army capable only of peacekeeping and the Canadian military's determination to prove otherwise.

Starting with Operation Mountain Thrust - a bloody U.S.-led mission to eradicate the insurgency in the south - and continuing through Operation Medusa - a bruising battle west of Kandahar city involving heavy artillery that took a significant civilian toll - the Forces went into conventional, Second World War-style warfare.

"We had commanders talking about enemy body counts and strong points," Col. Stogran says. "It reminded me of being a kid and watching Walter Cronkite talk about Vietnam. But every time we mounted an operation and killed civilians because of arms or ordnance, the more we destined ourselves to a long, drawn-out campaign."

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Soon, according to historians, the protective mission became secondary.

"Our first few missions were combat missions," Prof. Coombs says. "After that, it was hard to revert to that protective PRT role."

In counterinsurgency terms, Canada was "mowing the grass," moving into a town or village to mow down insurgents before pulling out a week or two later - only to watch the Taliban, or grass, grow right back.

"It's like putting your fist in a bowl of water," Prof. Coombs says. "When you take it out, there's no hole."

By the end of 2006, 32 Canadians had been killed and Gen. Fraser was imploring NATO for more troops. He wouldn't get them. For the next two years, successive Canadian generals faced the same dismal metric: a meagre force of less than 2,800 Canadians covering an area the size of Nova Scotia.

"It was more of a fire brigade always running to the next fire," says the current commander of Canadian troops in Afghanistan, Brigadier-General Daniel Ménard. "Because we had only limited troops here and a huge area to cover, that was basically all we could do."

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THE LOST CITY

As the Canadian Forces were racking up their largest casualty counts since the Korean War in Kandahar's hinterlands, the Taliban were rapidly taking over the province's major towns and cities.

Insurgents penned night letters warning that government workers would be killed. They set an 8 p.m. curfew and established shadow governments. Today, locals say the Taliban control 13 of 17 districts throughout Kandahar province - guarding roads, administering Islamic courts, levying taxes.

Forty-five years ago, the counterinsurgency theorist Bernard Fall posited that successful insurgencies don't out-battle governments; they out-govern governments. And that appeared to be the case in Kandahar.

Sarah Chayes, an American journalist who quit reporting with NPR in 2005 to establish a co-op in Kandahar city, witnessed the Taliban infiltration in and around the city and warned Canadian commanders to do something about it.

"It never seemed that their real strategic objective was the city," she said. "I would come to meetings with local leaders and it would be the first time the Canadians had ever met them. They had no intel on Kandahar at all."

According to Ms. Chayes, diplomatic efforts in the city also faltered. Unlike the American diplomats she was used to working with, the Canadians seemed blasé toward the rampant political corruption spreading like a virus through the city and the province. When Canada's most senior diplomat, Minister of Foreign Affairs Maxime Bernier, finally did speak out, suggesting that President Hamid Karzai should fire Asadullah Khalid, the corrupt Kandahar governor known to run drugs and personally beat prisoners, he was publicly admonished.

By contrast, when Mr. Khalid's successor, Rahmatullah Raufi, a decidedly incorrupt reformer, began criticizing Mr. Karzai and his notorious half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, he was promptly fired without public rebuke from the Canadian government.

"The U.K. and the Netherlands have in the past threatened not to deploy if the government was going to be run like this. Canada has been colluding with government officials who are hated by the people," Ms. Chayes says. "The people are enraged about this. And when you are enraged, you pick up a gun."

Today that view is shared throughout much of the city. Several locals interviewed for this story said the single best thing Canada could do to beat back the insurgency is stop supporting nefarious strongmen and politicians in the city.

"All the warlords, the drug dealers, they are happy with the city's insecurity because they are free to bribe, to transport drugs, to put tariffs on roads, to murder their opponents," said Junathan Barackzai, a tribal leader in the city. "Many of these men, they have the money and tribal connections to control government offices, the same government offices NATO has come here to support."

There are ample caveats to all these criticisms. For one, until American troops began arriving in Kandahar province this year, Canada had little choice but to "mow the grass" with its too-thin troop cover. What's more, Kandahar's political and tribal culture have confounded foreigners for years.

"Kandahar was screwed up long before Canadian generals could ever find it on a globe," says Mr. Isby, who has written several books on the country.

Because of the city's placement along historical trading routes, it is a melting pot of different tribes, ethnicities and Islam affiliations. To pacify one group is to annoy several others, according to Mr. Isby. "Really, you have to feel for the Canadians," he says. "They've ended up in the most screwed-up place in a very screwed-up country."

THE NEW WAR

Starting this spring, the hunt-and-kill tactics vanished under the command of Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance. A student of counterinsurgency theory, he developed the Key Village Approach, whereby his troops would capture a town with a brief and definitive show of force before settling there permanently and flooding it with development dollars - the so-called clean-hold-build strategy.

Earlier this year, the United States finally answered the pleas Gen. Fraser made three years previous for more troops. With more than 2,500 new Americans flooding his ranks, Gen. Ménard, Canada's new commander in Afghanistan, has even bigger ambitions.

"Rather than going after the small villages, I'm going after the big pieces," says the 44-year-old, who took over from Gen. Vance in November. "Because I have more resources, I can go after the big centres."

With a total force of more than 5,000 at his command - and with more on the way - Gen. Ménard plans to pour troops into four key towns on the outskirts of Kandahar, as well as the major highways leading into the city. From the air, coalition troops will appear to form a solid horseshoe to the west, south and east of the city.

In a break from the past, he will enter only those towns where he can post troops into the foreseeable future. "We will not just mow the grass and then leave," he said, "because the grass will grow again. We will hold that terrain."

The new approach may cause a little discomfort among the ranks. Already, Canadian and American soldiers are dispersing throughout the city suburbs, leaving the comforts of forward-operating bases - most feature chefs, flat-screen televisions and Internet access - and partaking instead in portable combat meals and the simple joys of sleeping under Kandahar's effervescent night sky.

The Ménard method aligns seamlessly with Gen. McChrystal's order to focus on protecting locals rather than slaughtering the enemy, to "interact more closely with the population and focus on operations that bring stability, while shielding them from insurgent violence, corruption and coercion."

Gen. Ménard is unyielding in the demand that this "ring of stability" be in place by May, when the Taliban commanders traditionally return from Pakistan to fight. "I'm in a position to dominate the traditional rat lines," he says. "When the insurgents arrive back, they will face a different realty." That is, they'll face newly optimistic locals who won't be so quick to offer a bed or a meal, forcing the insurgents outside the coalition ring.

Or so the theory goes.

The devastating IED attack that killed four soldiers and one journalist earlier this week occurred in a region where Canada had been testing this strategy since April.

And, as the well-read Gen. Menard will admit, Russian forces held every major city and road in the country during their occupation of the country between 1979 and 1989, and still didn't win.

What's more, the one constant among the various counterinsurgency prescriptions posited by international theorists is time. The most commonly cited counterinsurgency operations of the past century - Malaya and Northern Ireland, for example - took far longer than a decade. Canada is ceasing combat operations in 2011. So while the fate of the war - and thus the fate of Canada's military standing in the world - might hinge on the new southern strategy, Canadian combat troops may not be there to savour it.

"I'm here until September, 2010, and I intend to fight this until the very end," Gen. Ménard says. "I can assure you my successors plan to do the same."

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