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General who crafted Afghan strategy returns to put it in practice

Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance addresses a parade in Kandahar last October. Brig.-Gen. Vance is taking over Canada's mission in Kandahar after Brig.-Gen. Daniel Menard was relieved of that command due to disciplinary proceedings.

MCpl Matthew McGregor

When Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance resumes control of Canada's mission in Afghanistan later this week, he'll be returning to a fight he very much helped define.

On the military front, Gen. Vance is credited with pioneering the reigning counterinsurgency strategy that currently guides Canada's fight for Kandahar this summer, the key battle of the nearly nine-year-old conflict in Afghanistan.

He left Kandahar in November, having served nine months as commander of Joint Task Force Kandahar at the height of Taliban violence, which coincided with the Afghan presidential elections last summer.

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Gen. Vance, 46, championed the "key village" approach. The strategy involved deploying his troops would clear a town of insurgents then flood it with even more soldiers and development dollars, paving the way for local Afghan government to take root.

The "clear, hold, build" strategy represented a dramatic shift from the previous phase of the war, when thinly stretched Canadian soldiers had neither the numbers, nor the resources to score a decisive win against the Taliban.

"There just wasn't enough force on the ground to really turn that around," he said during a recent hour-long interview with The Globe And Mail in Toronto.

That changed this year, with tens of thousands of American soldiers surging into the southern Afghanistan in an effort to wrest control of the region from Taliban insurgents.

However, the surge happened just as Gen. Vance left, passing command to Brigadier-General Daniel Ménard, the commander who was relieved of his command Sunday for allegations that he had an intimate relationship with a subordinate.

The battle plan for this summer is already in place, with Gen. Vance now inheriting the legacy of the counter-insurgency strategy he initially developed.

His assignment is temporary but crucial. Gen Ménard's scheduled replacement, General Dean Milner, isn't due to arrive until September. Until then, Gen. Vance will command 2,800 Canadian soldiers and a contingent of American troops at the height of fighting season.

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Soldiers had been gearing up for this summer's battle when the controversy around their top commander broke, dominating the airwaves in Kabul and generating gossip among coalition forces across the country and those on Kandahar Air Field.

His leadership style differed from that of Gen. Ménard. The former seemed more affable and approachable than the latter, though both commanders generally concurred on counter-insurgency strategy. Under Gen Menard's command, the key village approach evolved into one involving platoon houses, where Canadian soldiers lived among the Afghan people to restore their confidence in security.

Before Gen. Ménard's dismissal, Gen. Vance predicted this summer's fight would be difficult and potentially bloody, involving an expansion of the ring of model villages, particularly in the Panjwai district.

"We need to expand that… to places where the Taliban have taken root over time," he said during the interview, conducted before the dismissal of Gen. Ménard. He refused to grant further interviews until he arrives back in Kandahar.

"I am optimistic we are going to be doing the right things, following the best practices in counterinsurgency," he added.

He acknowledged corruption and incompetence in the Afghan government remained stubborn obstacles. Coalition forces have been trying to change the balance of power in Kandahar, elevating certain local politicians to offset the power of others who are perceived to be corrupt.

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"We need them to assume responsibility. That might sound like a highly critical statement, but they truly lack capacity. They are shattered by thirty years of war," he said.

Still, he expressed frustration that local Afghan institutions often lag behind.

"That's the one thing that does disappoint me. There doesn't seem to be the agility [on the part of the Afghan government]to pile on. Well, every now and then you've gotta get real," he said.

He says, however, momentum is on NATO's side, despite signs of a resurgent Taliban.

"I don't know if there's a sense of optimism, but I think there's a growing sense that the international community is deadly serious about this. We're not going to back off," he said.

A month ago, he worried about flagging public support in Canada for the mission in Afghanistan. He believed many Canadians didn't have a clear view of how counterinsurgency was breeding success in Kandahar.

"I think many of them are still thinking the '06 to '09 period where Canadian soldiers worked bravely, didn't lose, prevented Kandahar from falling. But it was a draw because we had yet to feel the impact of the international surge of military and civilians in Kandahar. They don't seem to be understanding that now, at the local level there's been some pretty significant changes," he said.

"But public perception can change - for better, or for worse."

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About the Author

Sonia Verma writes about foreign affairs for The Globe and Mail. Based in Toronto, she has recently covered economic change in Latin America, revolution in Egypt, and elections in Haiti. Before joining The Globe in 2009, she was based in the Middle East, reporting from across the region for The Times of London and New York Newsday. More

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