In an exclusive interview with VOA by telephone, Brigadier General Denis Thompson characterized the recently-announced U.S. strategy for Afghanistan as just what the doctor ordered. "Well, to be frank, I think our reaction to the new U.S. strategy would be thunderous applause. It's exactly the direction we see the mission going in. And honestly, there's next to zero space or daylight between Canada's thinking on what should happen in Afghanistan and, of course, the United States," said the general, who led the Canadian contingent in Afghanistan from May 2008 until February of this year.
There are some 3,300 Canadian soldiers and airmen in Afghanistan - a tenth of the current U.S. troop strength of about 38,000 - and they are based in Kandahar province. More than 100 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2002.
A significant portion of the additional 21,000 troops that the Obama administration plans to send to Afghanistan will be joining the Canadians in Kandahar, where they will operate under a joint command that will be headed by a Canadian, at least initially. General Thompson says the troop influx will be most welcome because the Canadian contingent is too small to take and hold areas so the population will not be afraid to defy the Taliban.
But the welcome the Canadians give the Americans may not be mirrored by Afghans of Kandahar. The province is a hotbed of Taliban activity. In 2006, the Taliban launched an assault to try to take Kandahar city. General Thompson says the local cooperation with Canadian forces has been mixed at best.
"Frankly, in Kandahar city the cooperation is - I would characterize it as good, as opposed to very good or excellent, but it's good. And then in the countryside, I would characterize it as fair, fair to poor. I mean, it is fair where we're present, providing a security bubble and the population feels comfortable coming to us. And it's poor out in the hinterland where we're not present in any sort of permanent way," he said.
General Thompson says the goal in Afghanistan should be to marginalize the insurgents, not to militarily defeat them. "When I say you need to marginalize an insurgency, you need to marginalize it to the point where they have no military influence but where they still might be a political movement. And frankly, if you remove the term 'armed opposition' in the description of the Taliban, you basically have the opposition to the government of Afghanistan. And that's really no different than any other opposition political party in any other democracy in the world, at which point they are obliged to seek support from the public in a normal democratic manner," he said.
A key component of the new U.S. strategy is to in effect back a Kabul government effort to wean moderate Taliban elements away from the hardcore center and bring them into the political fold. General Thompson notes that the provincial governor of Kandahar - who happens to be a former Canadian resident - wants to call a jirga, or council, to discuss local problems. That, General Thompson says, presents an opening.
"Well, invariably if you invite 600 elders to Kandahar city, some of them are going to be affiliated with the Taliban. And that's your opportunity to make a pitch to them that perhaps it's time for them to come over to the side of the government and to act constructively in support of their own populations. So the process of reconciliation is really one that has to be driven by the Afghans themselves. But it's certainly one which we are comfortable with resourcing," he said.
The Canadian deployment to Afghanistan has caused some unease among Canadians, as acknowledged in a government study one year ago. Canada plans to begin at least initial withdrawal of its troops in 2011. During the NATO summit, President Obama tried to win additional troop commitments from NATO members for Afghanistan. But Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a U.S. television network (Fox News) that President Obama did not in his recent visit to Canada ask Canada to extend its military commitment to Afghanistan past that date.