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New strategy alters Canada's area of responsibility

Canadian military commanders are taking control of a restive district northwest of Kandahar as NATO tinkers with the country's area of responsibility in Afghanistan.

A U.S. battalion under Canadian command will arrive in the region within three weeks, according to U.S. Brigadier-General Frederick Hodges, director of operations for ISAF's southern command.

The move comes as U.S. President Barack Obama prepares to send several thousand U.S. troops to secure the outskirts of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city and the focal point of an area that has come under increasing Taliban control since Canadian Forces took responsibility in 2006.

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Canadian Forces were in charge of Arghandab until July, when responsibility was handed to an American Stryker battalion.

"The Canadians were just stretched too far up there," Gen. Hodges said.

Canada has roughly 2,800 soldiers in Afghanistan, most based around Kandahar. Until recently, Canadian troops roamed the entire region surrounding the city - an area encompassing between 800,000 and 1.3 million people.

"For the longest time you had very, very brave Canadians in very small numbers in the city," Gen. Hodges said. "In effect you had just three or four companies out there in a major metropolitan area trying to provide security and train Afghan security forces. This is not about courage or capability, this is about math."

Since last spring, Canada's area of responsibility has shrunk by two-thirds and three U.S. battalions have been placed under the command of Canadian Brigadier-General Dan Menard - part of a summer U.S. troop surge that brought some 20,000 new troops to the troubled southern portion of Afghanistan.

With U.S. forces under Canadian command taking over several regions north and west of Kandahar, Canadian troops will have a much smaller zone of focus - just one-tenth what it was in March, according to Gen. Hodges.

That corresponds with General Stanley McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy, which calls for coalition troops to focus on small areas of high population density.

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Under the new strategy, international troops will remain outside the city centre to block insurgents from travelling in or out, allowing Afghan army and police personnel to take control of the city.

"We believe that most of the insurgents are in those areas outside the city - in Zari, Panjwai, Arghandab - so that's why we focused our attention there," Gen. Hodges said.

"The last thing we need is MRAPs [mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles]and tanks and combat vehicles in downtown Kandahar. We believe that the city needs to be an Afghan solution - the Afghan police backed by the Afghan army."

News of the realignment first slipped on Nov. 18, during a handover ceremony transferring Canadian command in Afghanistan from Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance to Gen. Menard.

Even with the help of new U.S. battalions, Gen. Menard will face a tough battle. The Taliban have captured much of Arghandab since the district's powerful leader, Mullah Naqib, died of a heart attack in October of 2007.

"I'm a realist, but this plan is not airtight," Gen. Hodges said.

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"There are not enough soldiers in all of Europe to make this airtight."

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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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