This is somewhat surprisingly from the National Post. As a rule the mainstream media tends to support the status quo but there are exceptions. This is a hard-hitting article with none of the usual platitudinous rhetoric from officials that is almost standard in many reports.
'My men don't want to come back after 2009'
Much remains to be done in Kandahar, soldiers and civilians agree
Brian Hutchinson, Canwest News Service Published: Friday, February 08, 2008
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- "My men don't want to come back after 2009," said the captain, a grizzled army veteran. A bold comment. Sitting across from him at the breakfast table, at a Canadian forward operating base in volatile Panjwaii district, was a full colonel.
The captain continued. "You know why? Because they're scared. It's f---ing dangerous out here." The colonel looked at him and said nothing.
But the remarks were notable.
They came as politicians in Canada prepare to debate the possible extension of the military's combat role in Kandahar beyond February, 2009. A motion to lengthen the mission was tabled inside the House of Commons in Ottawa on Friday.
In Kandahar, there is no clear consensus. Some, like the captain's troops in Panjwaii, are not keen on returning. Others are already steeling themselves mentally for another tour.
To a person, they know that Kandahar province remains insecure, undeveloped and vulnerable to insurgent attack. When asked, soldiers here say that more work is required if local Afghans are finally to live in peace and enjoy some measure of prosperity. No one believes this can be accomplished over another year, or even three.
Quitting the province next February without finding replacement troops from other coalition armies, or attempting to reduce the Canadian army's role in Kandahar to a non-combat operation, would be irresponsible at best, they agree. Potentially disastrous.
Canadian soldiers of all ranks are prevented from discussing with reporters "political" decisions made about the military's mission here. But they do share their feelings about the effort so far, and what it has achieved.
Progress has been incremental but noticeable, particularly in the last six or seven months, says Maj. Trevor Gosselin, tank squadron commander with Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians). Panjwaii and Zhari districts are more secure; they are where most battles between Canadians and insurgents have been fought, and where the vast majority of 78 Canadian lives have been lost.
After witnessing and fleeing fights between Canadian soldiers and the Taliban, farmers are returning to their fields and families have moved back to their homes. Normal village life is resuming in parts of the districts.
Meanwhile, the Taliban leadership is splitting into rival factions, according to recent reports. But insurgents still operate in the districts and ambushes still occur, even outside the usual spring and summer fighting seasons. Direct engagements and firefights are far less frequent, notes Gosselin.
The last Canadian killed in a direct attack by insurgents was in September, when Cpl. Nathan Hornburg of the King's Own Calgary Regiment was killed by mortar fire in Panjwaii district.
Since his death, seven more Canadians have died while conducting operations in the two districts; all were killed by IED strikes.
Canada's most active areas of operation -- west of Kandahar city and to the north in Arghandab district -- are riddled with improvised explosive devices.
Despite their strong presence and their sophisticated hardware, Canadians, along with hundreds of Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police officers, have failed to stop insurgents from planting IEDs.
Gosselin hesitates when asked if he would like to return for another tour in Kandahar. Eventually he says yes. But he wants whatever progress has been made to be maintained, and then built upon.
When he arrived here almost six months ago, there were holes to fill; for whatever reason, he says, the Taliban had not been prevented from creeping back into Panjwaii and Zhari last year, after being handed defeats in 2006.
Gosselin said he'd also like to see the ANA and the ANP play a bigger role in the effort.
That has always been the intention but Afghan forces aren't ready to hold Kandahar on their own. The police, in particular, require more guidance and instruction from foreign troops. They are ill-equipped and under-trained; by most accounts, dysfunctional and corrupt.
Afghan civilians tolerate the ANA but loathe the ANP. There is a new saying in Kandahar: If you don't stop for a policeman, he will shoot you. If you do stop, he will rob you.
People here believe the ANP to be complicit in serious crimes, including a rash of alleged child abductions in Kandahar city.
"There have been 12 abductions and demands for ransom money in the city recently," claims Mohammad Naseem, who publishes a weekly newspaper in Kandahar. "The parents [of the children] are afraid to report the kidnappings to the police or to government officials because they think they are part of the problem."
Naseem and other Kandaharis share passionate opinions about Canada's military mission here, and its future. In a meeting this week with Canwest News Service, local businessmen said a lack of progress and redevelopment in Afghanistan's second largest city is causing huge resentment among its 750,000 residents.
Canadians share some of the blame, the businessmen said. Too much money and too many resources are being spent chasing the Taliban through grape and marijuana fields, out in the countryside.
"Who cares what the Taliban are doing in Panjwaii and Zhari," said one of them. "I'm sick and tired of hearing about that. No one here even thinks about the Taliban anymore. We need help and it's not coming. Kandahar is the country's second biggest city [after the capital, Kabul] but we don't even have basic services. And the Canadians talk about spending millions of dollars to pave more roads in Panjwaii. What good will that do us?"
Kandahar has been without electricity for almost two months. It's causing a crisis, says Abdullah Kamran, a building contractor and commercial landlord. "Factories and light industrial plants are closing because they lack steady power," he explained. "People are out of work."
Outside his office, another convoy of Canadian armoured vehicles rumbled through a main artery, the third one to pass in an hour.
People on the street scrambled to get out of the way.
"Why can't Canada send us generators to make electricity, so we can get on with our lives and become productive?" asks Kamran.
He left a business in the United States and returned to his native Kandahar after it was liberated from Taliban rule in 2001.
"We were full of optimism, even three years ago, " he says. "Now I regret coming back. Things are getting worse by the day.
Students at Kandahar's university are fed up and on the verge of rioting, says a teacher there. "They have no drinking water, no electricity, no materials." There is talk that people of the Alokozai tribe, the ethnic group that dominates the Arghadab district, are planning to protest a perceived deterioration in living conditions by launching a work stoppage.
Canadian soldiers and government officials point out that before Kandahar city can thrive, the areas around it must be made secure. But the university teacher scoffs. Afghan warlords, chased away by Taliban leaders a decade ago, were allowed to return by coalition forces and the Afghan government, he says. "Thugs and criminals" now run Kandahar, he says.
"Look around at the great houses they've built," he says. "Where did they get the money?"
Corruption is all anyone talks about these days, he adds.
"Kandaharis have two faces," says the teacher. "For six years, we have been showing our sheep face. Don't force us or pressure us to show our wolf face. Once frustrated enough, the general public will pick up arms. They will wage war on the government and coalition forces responsible for this mess."
That is the worst possible scenario, one that most Canadian soldiers here are likely too busy to contemplate. They follow orders and continue their dangerous work in the districts, clearing IEDs and looking for insurgents. Even those who don't want to come back still hope for the best.