OTTAWA Canada is sending a squadron of Leopard tanks and at least 200 more troops to Afghanistan in response to new attacks and tactics from Taliban forces.
Starting today, at least 125 of the troops will be sent from CFB Valcartier to boost security for the troops on reconstruction teams who help build schools, bridges and other humanitarian projects.
The squadron of tanks and the soldiers needed to run them will better defend Canadians in direct combat and allow soldiers to "reach out and touch" the enemy, said General Rick Hillier, Canada's Chief of Defence Staff.
Four tanks will be sent as soon as possible from Edmonton and about a dozen more could be sent later.
"I think those are very good enhancements. I think they're going to do wonders for the morale of the troops in theatre and let them know that this country, right to and inclusive of our Prime Minister, supports them in what they do," he said.
Between 125 and 150 of the new troops will come from the Royal 22nd Regiment, known as the Van Doos, from Valcartier, Que. The regiment has made one deployment to Kabul in 2004, but has not been involved since Canada took on the more dangerous mission of securing the hostile southern region in and around Kandahar.
The regiment was not scheduled to be deployed until next year and their arrival is expected to bring a new political dynamic to the war. Public opinion surveys have shown Quebeckers are the least supportive of the Afghanistan mission, and any future casualties will likely receive more coverage in the local Quebec media.
Gen. Hillier said the Quebec-based troops will provide security for the reconstruction teams rather than directly engaging the Taliban, but will still face the same degree of danger.
The announcement marks another escalation of Canadian military force. The original mission in Kabul saw the Iltis jeeps replaced by LAV III light armoured vehicles when it became clear the jeeps did not provide enough protection for the troops.
Earlier this week, the forces announced new shipments of LAV III vehicles to replace those damaged in combat.
Gen. Hillier said the extra troops are not a direct response to NATO's call for reinforcements but rather a reassessment of what Canada needs to be successful as the Taliban use new weapons such as mortar fire.
Boosting the number of Canadian troops to 2,500 from 2,300 will "dramatically" increase Canada's ability to secure the region, he said.
Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh said he supports the extra assistance if it means greater protection for Canadian soldiers. However, he expressed concern that the arrival of tanks could further hamper the battle to win the "hearts and minds" of the Afghan people.
"That is the more troubling question," he said. "Tanks obviously facilitate combat and protect our Canadian troops. They're also very blunt instruments. They are more appropriate and useful in smashing and wrecking things than in reconstruction or development."
NDP MP Alexa McDonough said the military talk of reconstruction has yet to play out on the ground.
"I think this is going exactly in the wrong direction of what our troops should be doing," she said.
Canada's tanks are so heavy that they have to be flown to the region one at a time, likely by another country. Gen. Hillier has urged the Canadian government to purchase lighter tanks, but Canada's existing fleet will do for now, he said.
Although Canada sent tanks to the 1999 Kosovo peacekeeping mission, Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, the head of the army, said this will be the first time Canadian tanks have been sent into combat since the Korean War.
Lt.-Gen. Leslie said depending on the number of tanks deployed, between 40 and 130 troops will be sent with them. Some management positions in Kandahar are coming to an end, which is why the total number of troops is only expected to increase by 200.
In addition to the infantry company from Valcartier and the tank squadron from Edmonton, the enhancements also include more military engineers to assist with the reconstruction projects and a "counter-mortar capability" to respond to Taliban attacks.
Lt.-Gen. Leslie, who led the Canadian Forces in Kabul, said Canada's needs have evolved to meet the changing tactics of the enemy.
"There's an evolution in tactics as demonstrated by those persons whom we are engaged in combat operations with. The focus, though, is on trying to reconstruct the south, where the Canadians are.
"But it's really tough to do that while you have to worry about trying to protect the weak and the innocent and your own soldiers who are being targeted by these hostile elements."