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Jonathan Vance

Bill Graveland

For a single emotional moment today, the man most responsible for plotting Canada's new course in the Afghan war will focus on a single horrifying moment from the past.

July 3 was the worst day in recent memory for Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance, Canada's top general in Afghanistan. His convoy was rumbling through Zhari district, west of Kandahar, when the vehicle behind him tripped a massive roadside bomb. A beloved member of his personal security detail, Corporal Nick Bulger, a married father of two girls, died.

"He was one of my soldiers that work with me every day," Gen. Vance said in an interview at Kandahar Air Field. "It was a tough day for all of us. I've lost 25 soldiers on this mission and they all hurt. But that was a ... that was a tough day."

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As he contemplates Cpl. Bulger's end, he will no doubt reflect on his almost-completed mission as well. He is just one week away from finishing his 10-month stint as top general here, a period that has seen him alter Canada's role drastically and develop some strong views of the enemy.

"They're crappy insurgents," he said. "They offer no viable alternative. They've performed too many heinous acts to become a political force."

"Yes, there's likely to be an insurgency here forever, but there's an insurgency in many countries - in Spain, in the U.K. ... . It's just manageable," he said. "Here they offer no viable alternative."

Brig.-Gen. Vance has earned admiration from international commanders for his new approach to fighting the war. Where Canadian Forces once chased insurgents across a huge swath of southern Afghanistan, Brig.-Gen. Vance now has the troops clearing Taliban out of individual towns and securing them against further attacks.

In one such "model village," Deh-E-Bagh, roadside bomb attacks have declined from 14 a month to one over the past 2½ months. Conditions in the surrounding Dari district have stabilized to such a degree that the UN and aid organizations have started operating in rural portions of the region for the first time in years.

"The insurgency has no capacity to combat against those kinds of activities," he said. "When you blow up an IED in a place where we're trying to do good work for Afghan people, it doesn't make the Afghan people appreciate the insurgency, which is good. It places our narrative in stark contrast to theirs."

His strategy is gaining influence. Much of the Afghanistan plan that U.S. General Stanley McChrystal recently submitted to President Barack Obama reads as if it were torn directly from Brig-Gen Vance's playbook.

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An influx of American troops over the past several months has already helped the process, shrinking the Canadian area of operations by nearly two-thirds and freeing up Brig.-Gen. Vance's 2,800 soldiers to focus on securing villages and towns, rather than entire districts and provinces.

Throughout the country, however, violence is rising. Last month was the deadliest for U.S. Forces since the war began eight years ago. Kandahar, a Taliban hub that is strategic jewel in the international strategy, remains an unsafe and lawless city.

But Brig.-Gen. Vance sees it differently.

"All the insurgency seems to be able to do now is act as a spoiler," he said. "They are able to create, in some quarters of Kandahar, this pervasive sense of threat. But they are in fact militarily weaker. They are having extreme difficulty with operations. They cannot and never do win tactical engagements."

Brig.-Gen. Vance's renewed focus on local support has made for an exhausting schedule for the general. He leaves the base about four days a week to meet with local leaders, and he rarely sleeps more than five hours, according to those around him. That indefatigable demeanour has fostered a certain mythologizing among his soldiers, who muse that he seems to operate for days fuelled solely by coffee and cigarettes.

Though he's been managing a war 11,000 kilometres from home for nearly one year, Brig.-Gen. Vance knows full well that growing numbers of Canadians are rejecting his argument, egged on by continuing Canadian deaths and the seeming failure of Western-sponsored democracy with the fraudulent election of Hamid Karzai.

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"These things are not overturned overnight," he said. "It took the Brits 20 years to control Malaya. We are basically waging the Second World War and delivering the Marshall Plan at the same time here."

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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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