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A Canadian soldier with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force stands guard during a patrol at a hill top over looking Shah Wali Kot district some 35 km north of Kandahar Province on March 27, 2008.


Time is running out in Afghanistan, Canada's former top soldier warned, arguing that the next 18 months is crucial to turning around the country.

Retired general Rick Hillier said that there would be "one shot" at changing the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

"The surge, in my view, is fundamental here," he said Saturday. "It's absolutely essential."

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His comments came at the Halifax International Security Forum, a gathering of top-level policymakers and military leaders, where the timing and scale of a decision on increasing U.S. troops levels are on everyone's lips.

U.S. President Barack Obama is weighing the recommendation by General Stanley McChrystal for up to 40,000 troops.

Such a surge was heavily backed by U.S. Senator John McCain, who shared the stage with gen. Hillier and said he expects a decision as early as Friday.

"The exit strategy is success," he said. "It's when you succeed and start to draw down."

But another panellist, one of the world's leading experts on Afghanistan, warned that simply increasing troops will not be enough.

"The only kind of thing which is likely to deliver in short-term will be local deals, but that's not good enough to stabilize Afghanistan," said Michael Semple, an Irish former diplomat who has two decades experience in central Asia.

Mr. Semple became persona non grata to Kabul while heading a EU mission, allegedly for running an extensive network of Taliban contacts. Heavily bearded and able to speak Dari, he is now with the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard and regularly spends time in the region.

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He said Saturday that the controversy in Western countries over military involvement in Afghanistan is being mirrored within the insurgency by dispute on the wisdom of continuing to fight.

"The good news is there are people who are involved in the insurgency who have their version of the kind of debate that we've had in western countries over the past few months ... and they want to bring this thing to an end. The bad news is currently they've got a weak hand inside the insurgent movement."

Mr. Semple argued that the constituency that has to be won over are the Pashtun fathers who are being asked by Taliban recruiters to give them their sons. But he warned that hawks still dominate the insurgency with their message that the West will not stay and the government in Kabul will be toppled.

An equally gloomy take was offered by the fourth panellist, Najam Sethi, the editor-in-chief of Pakistan's Daily Times.

"I think this troop surge is too little, too late," Mr. Sethi said. "Nobody wants to be on the losing side, they all hedge their bets. And so far the Taliban is winning."

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