KANDAHAR - If Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor is correct and the Canadian mission here is slowing, shrinking or changing its focus as the countdown lurches toward a possible February 2009 pullout, it'll be news in Kandahar, where all signs are pointing to a military and redevelopment buildup.
New air-conditioned Leopard tanks are expected next month, 16 military vehicles to better detect landmines are scheduled for arrival this fall, and the ground floor of a frantic expansion at Canada's reconstruction base in Kandahar City is filling up with new staff even before work on the top level is complete.
The lone Foreign Affairs bureaucrat here will soon be replaced by five officials as a signal that Afghanistan has become a hefty diplomatic priority. The number of Canadian teams deployed to mentor and train Afghans to govern themselves more effectively has quadrupled.
The Canadian International Development Agency is finally moving beyond its most visible project -- putting a Maple Leaf stamp on garbage cans lining the deadliest suicide bombing stretch of highway in the country -- to quietly backing a myriad of self-help initiatives for Afghans.
It doesn't exactly sound like a retreat being sounded. Besides, as Brig.-Gen. Tim Grant makes clear, Canada's most important work here won't be done for another three years, at best.
The key to winning conditions for Canada's departure are the police, an ill-prepared force of underpaid, underemployed youngsters being trained by Canadians to bring law and order to the daily chaos and confusion of Afghan life.
"In my mind, our mission now has everything to do with the Afghan National Police," the base commander said in an interview with CanWest News Service as he prepares to hand over control to the Van Doos from Quebec. "It will take three years, maybe longer, to give them the professionalism and confidence needed to be that front line of defence and base of governance." Brig.-Gen. Grant, who bears an eerie physical resemblance to B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, insists the job can't be declared done until Afghanistan has a clean police force to call its own. Right now, all they have is a corrupt, unreliable and often absent force, particularly during poppy harvesting season -- which creates the bizarre optics of police working the fields to get illegal opium to market.
"Our aim is not to be the lead of combat operations. That is a role for the Afghan army," Brig.-Gen. Grant said after a mad dash down Kandahar's main highway to a medal ceremony.
"Can they do that by themselves right now? No. Are they getting closer day by day? They sure are. So what we'll see over time is a change in the weight of our effort, allowing us to take our expertise and abilities and focus them on areas where we can make a difference." Brig.-Gen. Grant's partial to an initiative called the Provincial Reconstruction Team, which sends soldiers into villages armed with well-paying contracts for digging ditches or installing wells. The idea is that Afghans learn to improve their own lives, instead of increasing their reliance on foreign aid.
Yet, Brig.-Gen. Grant has a hard spin to turn his rotation's list of accomplishments into a parade of positives.
He insists dramatic improvements in the Panjwaii district, the former Taliban stronghold west of Kandahar, will be its signature accomplishment.
Yet, the district has helped make this troop rotation the deadliest of the three since Canada redeployed to Kandahar. The six-month toll has been 22 soldiers -- and not one death came from actual combat against the Taliban. It's been all roadside and suicide bombs, each blast bigger than the last, closer to military checkpoints, and inflicting ever more catastrophic damage to armoured vehicles.
Still, Brig.-Gen. Grant is quick to insist that progress is not a six-month process. "People were concerned the Taliban were going to take Kandahar City last summer, that it would fall and the rest of the country would go with it," he says. "This year, in spite of suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices, people have confidence in their safety, traffic is way up and they are building everywhere you look." He's got a point. There are signs of economic vibrancy and renewal in Kandahar City.
But, then again, signs can be misleading.
The indicators that Canada is here for the long term would appear to be sending off false readings of its future intent.
What Canada is building up today seems doomed to be taken down in 18 months, leaving Afghanistan's international force with a huge hole at the centre of its southern headquarters -- and a legacy of unfinished business to show for its soldier sacrifice.
All signs point to buildup in Kandahar
New gear, base construction appear to give false picture of Canada's plans