Top general vows to tell it like it is
From Saturday's Globe and Mail
July 28, 2007 at 12:54 AM EDT
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — Brigadier-General Tim Grant says he's ready to tell Canadians tough truths about what it's going to take to win in Afghanistan.
“I'm not interested in just being a cheerleader or parroting government policy,” said Gen. Grant, the Canadian contingent commander, who heads home next week after nine months in Afghanistan.
The general has some pretty well-formed ideas of what's been achieved, what hasn't and, most important, what lies ahead in the tough counterinsurgency war being fought by Canadians in the Taliban's heartland of Kandahar.
While Canadian firepower has smashed the Taliban's capacity to seize and hold territory, the toll from their fallback tactic – suicide bombs and IEDs – threatens to erode international support for the mission, the general said. And while he's heartened by the still-evolving transformation of the Afghan army into a vital fighting force, the woefully corrupt police force in Kandaharposes the biggest impediment to bringing stability, he said.
Insurgencies don't march to the incessant drumming of impatient foreign populations but, in Canada, February, 2009, has become an onrushing deadline. It's the date by which troops will return home to be replaced by other combat units or, perhaps, Canada will extend its military commitment.
Here, amid the dust and the heat and the uncertainty – where waging a counterinsurgency is a never-ending grind and every drive down every road is a version of Russian roulette played with roadside bombs and suicide attackers – the notion of a specific withdrawal date seems absurd.
Lean, soft-spoken and thoughtful, the general knows that only half the battle involves the hearts-and-minds campaign to woo Afghans to modernity, where opportunity, security, education and democracy are a viable alternative to warlord-ism, violence and a narco-state. There's also a war for the hearts and minds of citizens in faraway places. In Holland and Germany, in Spain and Canada, doubts are mounting and a rising chorus of voices want their soldiers brought home.
Mounting casualties, as roadside bombs and suicide attacks reap a grim toll, underscore the political utility of the Taliban's shift in tactics.
“They are hoping to break the will of the international community,” Brig.-Gen. Grant said. If the stubborn Afghan fighters seeking to drive foreign occupiers from their land succeed, just as they ousted the British in the 19th century and the Russians in the 20th, then Canadian blood and bullion will have been wasted.
Given the enormity of the task of establishing a civil society in a war-ravaged and impoverished land, progress in Kandahar has been swift and impressive since the long convoys of Canadian troops rolled south 11/2 years ago. Then, there was a grave threat that the Taliban would seize the city of Kandahar, creating a Islamic statelet that would undermine Afghanistan and re-emerge as a new haven for al-Qaeda.
That threat has gone. The Taliban, as a stand-and-fight force, stood and was defeated last fall in the Panjwai district west of Kandahar.
Canadian troops, on aggressive search-and-destroy missions, regularly rout and kill small groups of Taliban fighters. Equally important, the fledgling Afghan National Army, mentored by embedded Canadian teams and with Canadian artillery and tank support, is increasingly capable of conducting small-scale combat operations.
“That's why I am so optimistic after 10 months,” Brig.-Gen. Grant said.
Kandahar city is bustling. The fertile Panjwai has been mostly repopulated. It's no small measure of progress that small children shyly wave to passing Canadian armoured vehicles. “There are plenty of places where people still don't wave,” one soldier said.
Almost by definition, waging a successful counterinsurgency, especially for a foreign army, consists of barely perceptible progress that rarely warrants headlines back home interrupted with headline-making failures, defeats and mistakes.
“The Taliban is losing credibility in the eyes of the population,” Brig.-Gen. Grant said in a wide-ranging interview days before his departure.
Efforts to enhance governance (does the mayor have a filing system or does the village know how to reach the police) and aid reconstruction (new irrigation ditches and a stunningly successful polio-eradication program) are the two other legs that, along with security, complete the Canadian effort in Afghanistan.
“They are not well told and not well understood,” Brig.-Gen. Grant admits of the governance and aid components of the mission.
But slapping a Maple Leaf flag on every irrigation ditch dug with Canadian money may have little impact in Canada and could be counterproductive in Kandahar. There's a fine line between effective aid and making a local population look like lackeys to a foreign army.
“Hurry up and wait” is the unofficial motto of all armies. So the general, on an impossibly tight timetable in the last week of his tour, sits and patiently waits in Masum Ghar, a Canadian forward operating base, because the medals he is supposed to bestow are in a vehicle that has broken down somewhere. It's a rare moment to reflect.
“This can't be done in two or three years,” he says. “Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely.”
But Brig.-Gen. Grant's political antennae aren't just tuned to shifting sentiments among Afghans. “The mission focus can change,” he said, well aware that the high-profile of the military effort, and its heavy cost in casualties, may need reshaping.
If beating the Taliban in a conventional campaign to control territory was the first big objective and transforming the Afghan National Army into a force that will eventually be able to replace Canadians in the front line of counterinsurgency operations was the second, the third is fixing the police.
Manifestly corrupt, widely distrusted by ordinary Afghans, often left to man remote checkpoints where they are little more than cannon fodder for roaming Taliban, the Afghan National Police are the weakest link in the still-evolving chain that is supposed to anchor civil society in Afghanistan.
“It took me about four months too long to figure out where the ANP system was broke,” Brig.-Gen. Grant admitted. NATO has no mandate to reform and rebuild the police, and creating an honest force is a huge project.
“The next big thing is the police in Kandahar province,” he said.
Like most soldiers in Canada's small army, Brig.-Gen. Grant can expect to be back in Afghanistan if the mission continues. He will be back sooner than most because his next job will be deputy commander of all Canadian expeditionary forces abroad.
“The first thing I will look at is the police,” he said, when asked how he will measure future progress.