Canada’s exit highlights Afghanistan challenges

The air conditioning in the cavernous military assembly hall didn’t generate enough of a breeze to flutter the long strings of plastic Canadian flags. Some in the audience squirmed in their seats during a lengthy farewell address by an Afghan general. And with that, it was over.

The formal end of the Canadian combat mission, commemorated in a ceremony last week at NATO’s main base in the south, marked the first battlefield exit by a core member of the U.S.-led coalition. With the departure of 2,850 combat troops, an ally that had deployed forces to Afghanistan in the earliest days of the nearly 10-year-old war bowed out.

Allied nations with forces in Afghanistan have made no secret of their wish to follow suit, particularly in the wake of President Obama’s decision to withdraw 33,000 American troops, about one-third of the total here, by the end of next summer. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, visiting Afghanistan this week, said he planned to bring home 1,000 of France’s 4,000 troops by the end of next year. Qualms about the mission have been growing in France, spurred by Wednesday’s deaths of five French soldiers in a suicide bombing in eastern Afghanistan.

The German government has also said it wants to pare its presence. Britain said this month it would bring home 450 troops in the next six months.

The pullbacks will place a heavier burden on those troops left behind, most of whom are Americans. Some field commanders have made no secret of their worries that the drawdown is too fast and too steep.


Senior U.S. officials have been energetically seeking to reassure allies and the Afghan people that the American drawdown will not be “precipitous,” in the words of Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta. But Western envoys say the U.S. pullback cannot help but trigger a reevaluation of their own military stance.

“If the Americans, who gathered this force, are on the way out, how can it be expected that anyone else will want to prolong their presence?” asked one European diplomat in Kabul who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about his country’s views.

Among Afghan civilians, particularly those living in the most violent corners of the country, there is an uneasy sense that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force is painting an overly rosy picture of security, the better to justify troop pullbacks to come. Over the weekend, Gen. David H. Petraeus cited falling numbers of insurgent attacks. But here in the southern city of Kandahar, some Afghans said such figures do not reflect the perilous reality of day-to-day life.

“Every day, there are killings and kidnappings,” said a seamstress named Shalah. Two sons of her neighbors were recently abducted by the Taliban; the family, struggling to raise a ransom, received word a few days ago that one had already been executed.

In Kandahar’s blast-oven summertime heat, people sleep with their windows open, or bed down on mattresses on the roof. “So the sound I hear in the night is the weeping of the women of this family,” said Shalah, who did not want to disclose her family name.

For the Canadians, Kandahar province proved a killing field, and the sustained ferocity of combat here shocked a nation that had primarily envisioned a peacekeeping mission. At home in Canada, the war felt intensely personal; citizens routinely lined a highway bridge to pay respects when the bodies of fallen soldiers were repatriated.

Although Canada’s contingent was only NATO’s sixth-largest, it suffered disproportionate casualties: 157 deaths, according to the independent website, roughly equal to the combined fatalities sustained by larger troop contributors Germany, France and Italy.

Despite an arduous fight, the Canadians were too thinly deployed to break the Taliban grip on strategic districts surrounding Kandahar city. That did not happen until last summer, when American-led forces that had arrived in the Obama-ordered “surge” of troops dislodged the insurgents from key areas in the province.

Many Kandaharis believe the net effect of clearing outlying districts of insurgents has been to make the city itself more dangerous. And while they acknowledge that travel outside Kandahar is safer than it has been in several years, some rural landowners are not yet ready to risk moving their families back to isolated farm villages.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game with the Taliban,” said Ahad Maiwandi, whose family holdings are in Maiwand district, about 30 miles from Kandahar. “And people perceive that the cat is growing tired. So I think the Taliban will be back.”

The fact that years of costly Canadian efforts had little overall military effect in Kandahar province lent some awkwardness to the transfer to American forces. U.S. Army Col. Todd Wood, commander of the incoming Task Force Arctic Wolves, paid tribute to their sacrifices but said their departure would make little real difference to the fight.

“This is a normal progression of units in and out,” he said before the transfer-of-command ceremony.

The Canadians pointed with pride to a stay in Kandahar that produced many development projects, such as schools and clinics. But even some local people who were appreciative of those efforts said they did not expect the Canadian projects to leave a permanent mark. Relations with local and provincial officials were sometimes testy; Kandahar’s governor, Tooryalai Wesa, skipped the farewell ceremony.

Like other NATO nations with an eye on the exit, Canada agreed to remain involved in efforts to ready the Afghan police and army to take security control. It is deploying about 950 trainers to help prepare for that transition, meant to be completed in 2014.

The winding down of the Canadian combat mission did not go unnoticed by the Taliban movement, which rarely fails to capitalize on any chance to paint the Western military presence as folly.

In a statement, the group praised Canada’s “responsible step,” and called on the people of “other invading countries to … oblige their governments to put an end to the aimless war.”