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A boy throws a stone, and Gen. Vance teaches a lesson in counterinsurgency

The military commander of the Kandahar mission has a counterinsurgency to fight. So he could have let the relatively minor provocation slide.

But when someone in Kandahar city chucked a rock at his head on Tuesday, Canadian Forces Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance made sure the attack was avenged.

Though the throw missed, he ordered his convoy to halt. He scrambled down from atop his armoured vehicle, his bodyguards trailing him onto the busy Afghan street.

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The boy who had cast the stone ran off, but the headmaster of the mosque remained.

The general spoke to him instead. How dare the child do that? Didn't his students know what Canada sacrificed for Afghanistan?

It was a telling episode. The Kandahar mission's popularity may be waning and the Taliban is promising to blow up soldiers on an epic scale. But the stubborn commander wants to leave no stone unturned.

All the standard military weaponry is to be used against the insurgents in coming months. But more subtle strategies are in place, too, ideas such as moral suasion and urging Afghans to take charge.

That was made clear as a Globe and Mail reporter shadowed Gen. Vance for a day around Kandahar province, one of the most volatile regions in one of the world's most volatile countries. Canada continues its NATO mission to restore order in the region, with a withdrawal planned for 2011.

The excursion of the general, who took over the mission in February, yields an insight into an evolving counterinsurgency strategy. He spoke of deploying smaller, more nimble squads, and of gathering better intelligence from Afghans, and of putting local police, soldiers and leaders front and centre.

"We have to take a different approach," Gen. Vance told a shura, a gathering of Afghan leaders. Security forces and elders in the Arghandab Valley, located just north of Kandahar city, had gathered at a district centre to meet him.

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Before the meeting, the general had been zipping around to a number of military bases on roads where bombs had just been discovered. A local police chief couldn't make the shura, remaining in hospital after surviving a suicide bombing this month. Since then, a nearby school has been bombed and some frightened families have fled the area.

"We want your people to be comfortable and stay at home so they can vote," the Canadian general told the leaders, alluding to a presidential election scheduled for August. He said the Arghandab Valley had "enormous economic potential" and a "very bright future" - if its security issues could be sorted out.

For that, he said, the residents would need to help protect themselves.

Because small groups of Taliban are installing themselves with local families, he said, small bands of soldiers were poised to team with Afghan forces to get them out.

If the locals would only help gather intelligence.

An elder replied that little could be done as the insurgents all but vanish into the valley's vineyards.

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Hajji Abdul Jabar said he could keep outsiders out, but he said he had no idea what to do when locals became Taliban.

"The enemy is more aware and more informed than us," Mr. Jabar said.

"More informed than you?" Gen. Vance asked. "I find that hard to believe."

Mr. Jabar pleaded for the military to supply guns and launch massive sweeps. The Canadian general replied that it made no sense to hurt, or even anger, masses of people to find pockets of insurgents. Intelligence and community ownership was key.

"The most important thing is for your people to rise up and end the insurgency," he said. "And we will help you rise up."

Summing up his views on the enemy, Gen. Vance added that "we all need to whip them like the dead dogs they are."

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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