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Last Canadian combat group takes over in Kandahar

The new commander of Canada's battle group in Kandahar will have an iron fist, but hopes to use a velvet touch with the war-weary population of this embattled province.

Lieutenant-Colonel Michel-Henri St-Louis, who is in charge of the 1st Battalion Royal 22e Regiment combat team, officially took charge Saturday and will carry the baton through to the end of the country's combat mission in July.

In an earlier deployment, he spent time in Kabul as part of a military team that advised the Afghan government on ways to reconstruct a shattered civil service.

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It made a profound impression on him.

Years of war have hardened Canadian soldiers and made them wary of locals, a mindset that Lt.-Col. St-Louis said must change.

"At the end of the day, not all Afghans are your enemy and I tried to instill that in my troops before getting here," Lt.-Col. St-Louis said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"The [Strategic Advisory Team]showed me that there are some devoted Afghans who want a better future and have seen a better past."

Urbane and articulate, Lt.-Col. St-Louis seems perfectly in sync with NATO's strategy to win over recalcitrant Afghans, especially after a hard, bloody summer of fighting.

He brings to the job a keen awareness of cultural sensitivity, being born in Nicaragua and growing up the son of a Canadian father and a Central American mother.

The battle group will concentrate on building confidence in the hardscrabble hamlets of Panjwaii, Dand and Daman districts, said Lt.-Col. St-Louis, who wants to take full advantage of the current ebb in fighting.

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It's unclear whether the lull is related to the onset of winter - or whether the Taliban has been soundly defeated, he added.

The outgoing commander of Canada's mentoring team, Colonel Ian Creighton, declared on Friday that the back of the insurgency was broken by the NATO offensive on the outskirts of Kandahar this fall.

"I'll reserve my assessment of that for a while, and maybe the real test will be in the next spring and summer" when traditional fighting season returns, Lt.-Col. St-Louis told reporters shortly after a ceremony that marked the departure of the 1st Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment battle group.

Soldiers coming in from the forward bases and patrol shacks west of the provincial capital were happy to see the fighting ease off.

"Boring is good. I'll take boring any day," said Master Corporal Colin Chabassol, a Pictou County, N.S.-native who fought with India Company.

One trouble spot awaiting Lt.-Col. St-Louis is Nakhonay, a notorious Taliban redoubt that Canadian troops have chipped away at year after year with repeated clearing operations.

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"There was outright disapproval of the leadership of the town to our presence this summer; they had to disapprove because they were forced to disapprove by the insurgents," said Lieutenant-Colonel Conrad Mialkowski, the outgoing battle group commander from Petawawa, Ont.

"Yet, we still remained and were interactive with them. That spoke volumes to the local population."

Lt.-Col. Mialkowski acknowledged there is likely more hard fighting ahead, but the growing Afghan National Army will be there to carry a bigger share of the burden.

The fledgling Afghan force, which is 134,000 strong on paper, is due to be expanded to 260,000 over the next few years. But one of the biggest drawbacks it faces is its lack of what the military calls enablers - specialized units such as artillery, air support and engineers.

It is the combat engineers who've drawn the most applause from soldiers who are headed home.

Sergeant Chris Jeapes, a member from 8 Platoon of Charles Company, 1st Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment, couldn't say enough good about the troops whose job it is detect and clear away improvised explosives.

"A lot of foot patrols, engineers were able to actually pick up and find them before we moved into an area and found them ourselves by stepping on them," Sgt. Jeapes said in a recent interview.

"It saved our lives numerous times on this tour."

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