|KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — Secret military statistics show that Taliban attacks have decreased in Kandahar's core districts in the past year, illustrating the success of Canada's new strategy of pulling back its troops into the heart of the province, a top military commander says.
Insurgent ambushes have fallen in four of Kandahar's 17 districts as the latest rotation of troops has focused on protecting the vital zone around the provincial capital, said Lieutenant-General Michel Gauthier, although he did not give specific numbers.
The assertion that Canadian forces have created a bright spot amid the darkening security picture in southern Afghanistan represents the military's first detailed response to several academic reports in recent months that have described NATO as losing the war.
Gen. Gauthier, commander of all Canadian forces overseas, invited reporters for an unusually open discussion in Kandahar during the weekend, taking questions for nearly an hour in an attempt to show that his troops are making progress.
"In relation to where we're focused, I think we are winning," he said.
Geographic focus was a key part of the general's assessment. While saying that security has improved in the districts of Panjwai, Zhari, Spin Boldak and Kandahar city, he repeatedly declined to comment about the provincial situation as a whole.
Canada assumed the lead responsibility for Kandahar's security at the beginning of 2006, patrolling to the furthest reaches of the province, but it proved a bigger task than military planners had expected.
Hundreds of Taliban fighters pushed against the western edge of Kandahar city that summer, forcing the Canadians to devote their entire combat strength to a bloody defence of the city.
The Canadians had regained sufficient control of the districts around the city by the spring of 2007 that commanders proudly announced they had resumed patrols across much of the province's 55,000 square kilometres.
But control of the central districts once again looked shaky by the summer of 2007, as Taliban overran police outposts, and Gen. Gauthier said with the latest rotation of soldiers, mostly from Quebec, the decision was made in August to focus on a few central areas.
That decision was partly aimed at "managing risk" of casualties among the Canadian troops, he said, but was also intended to protect the districts where 75 per cent of the province's population lives.
"Afghans will be better off, in those areas where we're focused," Gen. Gauthier said. "You can only do so much with the troops that you have. You've got to make those tough decisions. You've got to take Kandahar and bite it off, one bite at a time, and that's effectively what we've done here."
In places just beyond the Canadians' zone of control, the Taliban have established a parallel court system, enforced curfews, and mounted road checkpoints.
But Gen. Gauthier described his troops in a dilemma similar to that faced by a hospital triage nurse, deciding which patients require the most urgent attention: "You have to prioritize," he said.
Gen. Gauthier has served as the guiding hand behind the Afghan mission for the past two years, leading Canadian Expeditionary Force Command. Previously the head of military intelligence, and now making his 20th visit to Afghanistan, he described himself as one of the officers who can speak with the most authority on Canada's military progress.
But his optimism contradicts the prevailing view of Kandahar's security.
Canadian Major-General Marc Lessard, the new commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in the south, said last week that violent incidents in the six southern provinces have increased 50 per cent in the past year.
Among those southern provinces, Kandahar does not enjoy a reputation for better security. In fact, it stood out in a private consultant's report as Afghanistan's most violent province in 2007.
Vigilant Strategic Services Afghanistan (VSSA) counted 1,120 violent incidents in Kandahar during the past year, compared with 363 in neighbouring Helmand province and 105 in Uruzgan province during the same period.
Kandahar continues to be exceptionally troublesome this year, as the VSSA numbers for the first four weeks of 2008 showed a greater number of insurgent-related attacks in Kandahar - 43 incidents - than in any other province.
Along with looking at the level of violence, Gen. Gauthier also suggested that his troops have carved out a foothold for reconstruction and development in Kandahar. But a journalist pointed out that many aid agencies have withdrawn their non-essential staff from Kandahar in recent weeks, fearing a rise in Taliban activity.
"Right," the commander replied. "And I suppose we need to find a way to deal with the perception issue, because it's all about perception."
He did concede that the Canadians were mistaken in their reliance on hastily trained Afghan police. The Afghan National Auxiliary Police (ANAP) were given 10 days' training and assigned to outposts in Panjwai district after Canadian soldiers cleared insurgents from the area last winter.
"There was an expectation that ... that would contribute positively to the security environment, and it didn't," Gen. Gauthier said. "For the most part, it didn't."
The most recent rotation of Canadian troops has recaptured the outposts lost by ANAP last year. The new Afghan forces guarding those positions have a stronger system of Canadian mentors, he said, and it's unlikely that the Taliban will retake the outposts when the heaviest part of the fighting season starts in late May.
"Now, we have police in the same places," Gen. Gauthier said. "They're there, and they haven't come under serious attack, and the question will be, where are they in the May-to-September time frame?"
This year will likely see a decrease in violence in the districts where Canadian forces are concentrated, he added. He did not make predictions about the rest of Kandahar province.
"There is a finish line somewhere down the road," he said. "We are moving toward that finish line."