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Canadian pullout could threaten Afghan mission, senior NATO officer says

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan _ On the eve of the nine-year anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, a senior NATO commander delivered a stark personal warning Wednesday that Canada’s planned withdrawal next year could undermine the military coalition’s hard-won progress in volatile Kandahar province.

Canadian soldiers will be leaving Afghanistan at the height of next year’s fighting season, when harvest season is over at the height of summer, and the departure “couldn’t be at a more critical time,” said U.S. Col. Dave Bellon, NATO’s chief of operations for southern Afghanistan.

“I’ll shoot you straight; it’s going to hurt us,” said Bellon, who stressed he was speaking from his own perspective, not that of the military coalition. But simple math makes it clear the soldiers who are left behind _ the U.S., primarily _ will be hard pressed to fill the gap.

“There is no other country that is going to come in and backfill Canada in Panjwaii, except the United States, and there are no additional forces (in Afghanistan).

“That means we’re going to take an already stretched force and stretch it farther.”

Coalition and Afghan forces have in recent months launched a multi-pronged offensive against Taliban insurgents that’s focused on Kandahar city, not far from spiritual home of the Taliban. Many see the operation, dubbed Hamkari, as southern Afghanistan’s last best chance for stability.

It will be impossible to replace Canada’s more than 1,000 combat troops _ the bulk of them are in Panjwaii, a largely rural district southwest of the city and a notorious Taliban stronghold _ without diminishing forces elsewhere in the country, Bellon said.

Their presence there is seen as integral to Hamkari. The Canadian battle group, a fraction of the 2,800-strong contingent known colloquially as Task Force Kandahar (TFK), is being used to block access to the city as U.S. forces push the Taliban down from neighbouring Zhari district.

With fewer troops in the province, military planners fear the insurgents will be able return to the areas where they’ve been chased from.

“When you take out a capable force like TFK, a very capable and willing force, then you have got to spread the rest of the force thin,” Bellon said.

“Then you get in the danger of not being able to secure the population.”

Canada’s not the only country poised to leave Afghanistan. The Dutch, a key Canadian ally in neighbouring Uruzgan province, have about 2,000 troops, but they’ll be pulling out at year’s end _ a decision that ended up tearing apart the country’s coalition government in February.

It’s not the first time a senior NATO representative has warned of dire consequences.

Maj.-Gen. Mart de Kruif, who ended a one-year assignment last fall as the NATO commander for southern Afghanistan, said earlier this year that the expertise of both countries will be sorely missed in the volatile south, where the Taliban insurgency is the strongest.

“Everybody respects the huge efforts made by both these countries in southern Afghanistan,” de Kruif said.

“But people also realize that with so much knowledge out there, they have proven to be so skillful … that it would really hurt from a military point of view if these two countries leave.”

Bellon later sought to clarify his comments by comparing himself to the coach of a sports team. “If you tell me I’m going to lose a star player, I’m going to say, ‘Sure it hurts.”’

And though he stressed he was speaking for himself and not NATO, it has long been a poorly kept secret that the organization is actively lobbying Ottawa to rethink its plans to end the combat mission in 2011.

Washington has also pressured Canada to remain in Afghanistan in a training capacity, an idea that has found favour with the opposition Liberals as well as the Senate committee on defence and security.

As the conflict marks its nine-year anniversary Thursday, it remains anyone’s guess just what the U.S. endgame is going to look like: an even longer-term engagement from the U.S., a quick exit from an increasingly unpopular conflict, or something in between.

Fearing that his Western allies may in the end abandon him, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has started to prepare his nation for a withdrawal of international forces by shoring up relations with neighbouring Pakistan and reaching out to insurgents interested in reconciliation.

Pakistan, America’s nominal ally, says it’s fighting insurgents. But it still tolerates al-Qaida and Afghan Taliban militants hiding out on its soil _ out of reach of U.S.-led NATO ground forces.

Public support for the war is slipping in the United States and Western Europe. Already, the Netherlands has pulled out its troops, the first NATO country to do so. Canada is next.

The Conservative government has thus far been steadfast in its refusal to extend combat operations, citing a 2008 parliamentary motion that calls for Canada’s role in the fighting to end in Kandahar by July 1. It also mandates a withdrawal from the province by the end of next year.

But while a military ramp-down appears inevitable, Canada has yet to communicate whether it intends to continue its involvement in civilian development projects beyond the 2011 deadline.

International development officials working with NATO acknowledge they are preparing for the possibility that Canada’s development program will end as well.

“There is some uncertainty, in my mind at least, as to whether Canada will decide to maintain any presence in Kandahar,” said Richard Berthon, director of stability for NATO’s southern command.

“We’ve tried to understand what Canadians have been doing… and working out what the next steps are.”

Berthon insisted that the lack of certainty over Canada’s civilian intentions has not hampered the international community’s stabilization efforts in Kandahar.

“Basically the story of our year has been taking the baseline of where Canada got to and really trying to now crank the handle to take things onto the next level to make that difference,” he said.

Canada handed over responsibility for Camp Nathan Smith, the provincial reconstruction base in Kandahar, to the Americans in August.

A small contingent of Canadian civilians and military personnel remains at the base, which once had been the showpiece of Canada’s development efforts in the restive province.

Afghans, meanwhile, are tired of the violence and increasingly resentful of foreign forces. Many wonder why their quality of life has not markedly improved when their nation has been awash in billions of dollars of foreign aid.

“NATO is here and they say they are fighting terrorism, and this is the 10th year and there is no result yet,” Karzai said in an emotional speech last week. “Our sons cannot go to school because of bombs and suicide attacks.”

Ready to refute pundits who say the war is lost, U.S. Adm. James Stavridis, the supreme NATO commander in Europe, has compiled a list of nearly 50 examples that the coalition is making progress. He shared them in a five-page letter Oct. 1 to defence chiefs in NATO nations.

In a 90-day period ending in early September, he wrote, Special Operations Forces conducted 3,302 operations, resulting in 251 enemy leaders killed or captured; ammonium nitrate, a key ingredient in homemade bombs, is being seized in record amounts around the country; schools and the district police station have reopened in Marjah and insurgents there are suffering from low morale and shortages in food and weapons; and the Afghan security forces will expand to 260,000 by the end of the year _ 5,000 higher than the target.

Karzai’s government, meanwhile, has reportedly started secret talks with representatives of the Taliban to negotiate an end to the war.

A Washington Post report Tuesday cited anonymous Afghan and Arab sources as saying they believe the Taliban representatives are authorized to speak for the Quetta Shura, the Afghan Taliban organization based in Pakistan, and its leader, Mohammad Omar.

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