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Canada to focus efforts on Kandahar city

After a failed effort to establish outposts in Taliban territory, new policy concentrates on areas where Afghan government is strong

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — Canadian officials are planning to direct aid to the most receptive neighbourhoods in and around Kandahar city, leaving out places deemed too far-flung or “empathetic” to the Taliban insurgency.

In a briefing Tuesday, officials said past mistakes have taught them to apply a “direct focus on specific, small areas.”

The intent is to provide the villages enough security and assistance to allow normal daily life to unfold as the Afghan government intends – something that happens in very few places at present.

Some military observers liken the new approach to an “adopt-a-village” program, or, more wryly, the creation of miniature “Walt-Disneystans,” – essentially places where life is made to seem a lot sunnier than elsewhere.

This kind of strategy may be the future of Canada's Afghanistan mission, beset by diminishing expectations, fading popular support and a looming deadline for military withdrawal.

Parliament has decreed that Canadian troops will withdraw from NATO combat missions in Afghanistan by 2011. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his ministers have been turning up in Kandahar lately to highlight that the mission is really about humanitarian programs and reconstruction.

About 400 Canadian Forces soldiers are currently stationed at the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team headquarters. Located inside the city, they are at the base to train Afghan soldiers and protect a growing contingent of Canadian aid workers and diplomats, who now number about 60.

The centre is not new, but officials say they have learned from past mistakes to emerge more focused. “We can't be everywhere at once, so where do we want to be?” said Lieutenant-Colonel Carl Turenne, the base's military commander.

Delivering aid to key areas of Kandahar city, he said, will likely prove a better investment than setting up outposts in restive rural regions.

Several such bases were set up by Canadian soldiers a couple of years ago in hope of taking the fight into outlying regions. But many have since been abandoned or dismantled after proving to be lightning rods for insurgent attacks.

The Canadian military has also spent years training new Afghan soldiers and police, although it's been a slow process.

Officials say they are now convinced they are making strides. They add the quality of police work matters a lot more than fast-tracking heaps of poorly trained rookies into active duty.

“You want police who are not taxing people every time they go through a checkpoint,” said Col. Turenne. He spoke of steering the best-trained, least-corrupt police toward the better neighbourhoods in Kandahar so they can do actual investigative work.

In many places, he added, Afghan police struggle just to stay alive. The reconstruction centre's aid director, Michael Walker, said programs have suffered because key decisions were often tied up in the Afghan capital of Kabul, or even by decision-makers in Canada.

But lately, he said, he has been given a lot of latitude to develop and implement multimillion-dollar programs, such as recent initiatives to deliver wheat seed and vineyard huts to local farmers.

Afghanistan remains one of the poorest and most violent places on Earth.

“I'm not going to paint a rosy picture,” said Cory Anderson, the young diplomat who heads the reconstruction centre.

He said he anticipates the Taliban will attempt to mount spectacular attacks this summer in Kandahar, and that danger will lurk around many corners.

Even so, Mr. Anderson said he's hopeful the programs will make a difference – and Canada, he added, is obliged to do what it can to help the Afghan people.

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