Thursday, February 25, 2010

Canadian Commander says Kandahar Operation Will Mimic Marjah

Despite Taliban activity in Helmand, NATO won't alter Kandahar plans
During a medevac mission in Marjah, Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers prepare to use a backboard to extricate a wounded Marine from inside an armored vehicle disabled minutes earlier by a planted improvised explosive device, on Feb. 23, 2010.

Publicity meant to prepare civilians for large-scale attack has given insurgents time to plant makeshift bombs in the hundreds, Canadian commander says

Josh Wingrove

Kandahar, Afghanistan — From Wednesday's Globe and Mail Published on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2010 7:22PM EST Last updated on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010 9:25AM EST

Although the publicity-heavy military strategy NATO adopted ahead of its ongoing offensive in Helmand province allowed the Taliban time to plant “hundreds” of makeshift bombs that are slowing troop progress, a similar operation planned in Canadian-led Kandahar province will largely use the same tactic, its commander says.

The Canadian commander of the coalition's Task Force Kandahar, Brigadier-General Daniel Ménard, said troops in Helmand have come across about 400 or 500 of the improvised explosive devices in 10 days since the start of the big attack, dubbed Operation Moshtarak.

“The IED capability of the insurgents remains very real,” Brig.-Gen. Ménard said, hours after the coalition declared in a statement that the improvise explosive devices “remain the greatest threat to security forces.”

Asked about comments from another regional commander, who said last week that IED finds were only in the “dozens,” Brig.-Gen. Ménard said they were “for sure” in the hundreds. The result was not unexpected, and has not swayed Brig-Gen. Ménard, who suggested the soldiers in Kandahar – including the bulk of the Canadian troops in the country – will be able to learn from what their peers have seen in Helmand.

“It just confirms that [the Taliban's] tactics and their procedures have not actually changed that much. They're improving, they're very agile, very agile. But we are also very agile because we are learning from every time we find something. It's as simple as this,” Brig.-Gen. Ménard said.

A day earlier, United States Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said IEDs have “been a real challenge,” slowing down American-led troops in Helmand province.

“By all accounts, the Taliban's resistance has been, at best, disjointed, but we have experienced difficulties. In some places the enemy fights harder than expected. The IEDs he has planted along the roads and at intersections, though crude, are still deadly,” Adm. Mullen said.

If the coalition goes ahead with the same game plan this summer in Kandahar, which has been made possible by the arrival of additional American soldiers, it will also include an emphasis on Afghan participation and an effort to limit civilian deaths.

Brig.-Gen. Ménard said Operation Moshtarak's civilian death toll – at least 16 killed according to the coalition, with human rights groups pegging it around two dozen – is “not bad” considering the scale of the operation, adding “one [civilian death] is too many, that I agree 100 per cent,” he said.

“But when you actually fight where the population is, the chances are that there could be some collateral damage. When you have [thousands of] troops coming down and conducting an operation like we have seen, with the number of civilian casualties we have seen, it's not bad,” he said.

“When you have a motorcycle that is driving towards you, and you actually make the sign to stop and suddenly he doesn't stop... even if he doesn't carry any [bombs], you don't know,” Brig.-Gen. Ménard said.

“These are things that are happening all the time.”

Kandahar's massive operation this spring will use “a lot of checks and balances” to minimize civilian deaths, he said.

Public perception of Operation Moshtarak has been plagued by a spike in unrelated civilian deaths across the region, which damper claims that the new attack is meant to protect the Afghan people. The most recent unrelated incident came in Uruzgan province Monday, when as many as 27 civilians were killed by a NATO air strike meant for a group of insurgents.

The commander also said the recent arrests of high-profile Taliban leaders in Pakistan may only make a short-term difference for coalition soldiers. The arrests of Taliban second-in-command Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and eastern Afghanistan insurgency commander Maulavi Abdul Kabir will only “have a limited impact in time and space” before “the vacuum gets filled rapidly,” Brig.-Gen. Ménard said.

But, replacement commanders with less “experience and credibility” could ultimately dilute the power structure of the Taliban, working in the favour of coalition forces, he added.

“The problem for them is that the quality of the individuals that they replace them with always degrades,” Brig.-Gen. Ménard said. “Yes, they are replaced, but it is certainly hurting them in a big way. So, by default, it's helping all of us.”

He offered scant new details of his summer operation in Kandahar, which has been publicized with a May start date and is made possible by the arrival of additional American troops. Brig.-Gen. Ménard said those extra soldiers will allow the coalition to dictate the terms of fighting with insurgents, who typically return from Pakistan once the weather is warmer, leading to increased fighting.

“We will be this year, for the first time I believe, in a very proactive [role]. We will decide where we will fight them, and when. And that is something where we've not had a chance in the past to do, because we just did not have enough troops to do it. Now that we have a lot of troops, we are in a position to dominate this ground and area,” Brig.-Gen. Ménard said.

Kandahar's governor has said he is already preparing to roll out government services in areas that are cleared of insurgents.

Brig.-Gen. Ménard also said that such “preparation with the Afghans remains essential” and a “key to success” in the region.

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