Top soldier hails new era in Afghan mission


Vance hands reins to U.S.; officials upbeat at handover


Canada transferred responsibility for the northern approaches to Kandahar City to the United States on Sunday in a move designed to allow the Canadian battle group to concentrate on fighting the Taliban in the provincial capital and three turbulent and heavily populated outlying districts.

As Kandahar's governor, the province's top Afghan general and several dozen Pashtun elders listened intently, Brig-Gen. Jonathan Vance of Task Force Kandahar introduced Col. Harry Tunnell IV, commander of the U.S. army's 5th Stryker Brigade.

"Today is the start of a new era in Arghandab and Shawali Kot," Vance said. "I would ask that you welcome him as you welcomed the Canadian soldiers to be guests in your country. He needs your support as he faces difficult challenges."

Canada is effectively handing over half of its battle space in Kandahar to incoming U.S. forces this month in the east, north and far west of the province.

It has only had 2,000 thinly stretched combat troops to cover an area nearly the size of New Brunswick since the former Liberal government moved them south from Kabul in early 2006.

Canada has lost 127 soldiers in the Afghan mission.

"Where we have had forces deployed in very small numbers, conducting very important operations, we can bring them back into our main effort," Vance said in a recent interview.

"Where we normally had a company-sized element, they will put in a battalion-sized element and enablers. It is an order-of-magnitude of difference in capability in those areas, and we get to concentrate our force."

On Sunday, Vance described the Stryker brigade as one of "the most advanced in the world." It is part of a huge influx of U.S. forces ordered to the south of the country by U.S. President Barack Obama in an effort to turn around a war that many observers say is at a stalemate.

The arrival of Tunnell and his Fort Lewis, Washington, brigade's fast and manoeuverable armoured vehicles will suddenly triple the number of combat forces in Kandahar to about 6,000.

But Tunnell was quick to point out that Canada will continue to have the lead in construction and development in the province, but military responsibilities will be split between the two countries.

"There are new forces in Kandahar to prevent the insurgency from becoming stronger," Gov. Tooryalai Wesa explained to the elegantly turbaned, heavily bearded elders, whose craggy faces betrayed little emotion throughout the 45-minute shura, or consultation.

"Historically, Arghandab is one of the most important districts politically and militarily. If it is insecure, that has an effect on Kandahar City."

Afghan Brig.-Gen. Bashir Khan, who commands five battalions, said: "This is a very proud moment for me. ... I welcome my new friends and ask the elders to be good partners.

"The enemy has tried every year to capture Arghandab District and thereafter Kandahar City; but thanks to the efforts of his troops and the Canadians, those efforts have failed."

Outside the Arghandab District headquarters after the meeting ended, Wesa, an Afghan-Canadian professor from the University of British Columbia who was named governor in December, predicted that the security situation in the birthplace and spiritual home of the Taliban would change.

"If we attacked them before in one area, they would move to another; and then, when we attacked them there, they'd move to a third place. Now, with many more forces, they will have nowhere to run. They will surrender or they will leave."


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