Canadian Forces in Afghanistan Focus on Reconstruction

In the fight for attention back home, Canada's provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar is losing badly - and it's not hard to see why. The PRT, which is struggling to help rebuild the economy in the violent southern Afghanistan province, is up against the war itself.

Canadian Forces in Afghanistan Focus on Reconstruction

In the fight for attention back home, Canada's provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar is losing badly - and it's not hard to see why. The PRT, which is struggling to help rebuild the economy in the violent southern Afghanistan province, is up against the war itself. When it comes to vying for TV time and front-page treatment, what chance does digging irrigation ditches and paving roads have against the latest bloody suicide bombing or pitched battle? Yet in 2007, the political debate about Canada's entanglement in Afghanistan could turn on the federal government's success or failure in shifting at least some of the focus from destruction to development. As Prime Minister Stephen HARPER braces for a possible spring election, he needs voters to see a glimmer of hope behind reports of carnage from Canada's biggest gamble on the world stage.

More than anyone else, Lt.-Col. Simon Hetherington bears the burden of delivering those signs of progress from embattled Kandahar city. As the PRT leader there, he oversees the work of 330 Canadian Forces personnel and a handful of officials from FOREIGN AFFAIRS, the CANADIAN INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AGENCY and the RCMP. The idea behind the PRT is to closely link troops to development experts, allowing aid work to press ahead even in areas where there's still fighting. So far, criticism of the team's impact has outweighed praise. Opposition politicians slam the government for underemphasizing it - making combat, not reconstruction, the real mission in Kandahar. Beyond the Canadian debate, some international observers contend the PRTs - there are 24 in Afghanistan run by 12 countries - have generally failed to live up to expectations in the face of the Taliban insurgency. But in an interview with Maclean's, Hetherington painted a picture of how 2007 might provide a far more upbeat story.

He starts by noting that Canada's PRT has recently acquired some badly needed muscle. About 120 troops from the Royal 22nd Regiment, based in Valcartier, Que., arrived on Dec. 4 to join the team as a so-called "force protection element." Complete with light armoured vehicles, the Van Doos will guard PRT members when they venture out of their compound to work in Kandahar's impoverished, strife-torn villages. Previously, the PRT, which was set up in Kandahar in mid-2005, didn't have a dedicated fighting unit to protect its workers, and so was often stuck in its compound. Hetherington had to beg for troops from the Canadian battle group in Kandahar, who were often tied up with hard fighting against the Taliban. Gaining his own security contingent, he says, "will allow us to reach out further than we've been able to in the past."

Teams of engineers also joined the PRT for the first time through the fall, which should allow it to take on more planning of construction projects. A key focus: building stations and checkpoints on roads for the expanding Afghan national police. Training and equipping those police and getting them established as a permanent presence in Kandahar's often isolated villages is a preoccupation for the PRT. "The first and only contact many Afghans are going to have with their government is that local Afghan police officer," Hetherington says. "If that contact isn't good, they are going to look elsewhere for security, and the other place they are going to look to, unfortunately, is the Taliban."

With its new protection unit and engineers, the PRT hopes to be visible in 2007 - to both Afghans and Canadians. One high-profile project begun in 2006, and due for completion early in 2007, is a five-kilometre road called Route Summit, which runs through a fiercely fought-over area in the lush Arghandab River valley. "There has been fighting there throughout history," Hetherington says. "It's key to dominating Kandahar." The road will help farmers get their produce to market, offering concrete evidence that the international coalition can help bring prosperity. "It will be an access route to market for local grapes, which I can tell you from personal experience are exceptionally good."

Of course grapes aren't the crop most associated with Afghanistan. Opium production rose nearly 50 per cent in 2006 to more than 6,000 tonnes. Arguably as much as the Islamic extremist ideology of the Taliban, the profit motive behind the rebounding poppy industry is at the root of much of Afghanistan's violence. But weaning farmers off an illicit cash crop in one of the world's poorest countries is proving extremely difficult. In 2006, a CIDA initiative to promote "alternative livelihoods" in four of Kandahar's 17 districts remained largely in the planning stages. In 2007, these projects - which are to include distributing seeds and livestock, building crop storage facilities and irrigation canals - must begin to show farmers a future beyond poppies.

Those working in the PRT measure progress in small victories - a few kilometres of road, a new police checkpoint, a village council set up to administer a small development budget. But in Western capitals, Afghanistan remains a war story. Only last week, Canadians were in the thick of a major new NATO operation, called Falcon Summit, aimed at driving Taliban fighters from volatile Panjwaii district. News of the offensive happened to come on the same day federal officials had scheduled a background briefing for Ottawa journalists on the PRT - a reminder of how attempts to tout progress in Kandahar tend to be drowned out by combat news. In 2006, the Taliban fought back fiercely against NATO's push into its southern strongholds, and Iraq-style suicide bombings and terror strikes in the region became commonplace. Roland Paris, an international affairs professor at the University of Ottawa and former foreign policy adviser in the federal government, argues NATO's only option is to "go big or go home."

Paris calls for the 40,000-strong combined NATO and U.S. force in Afghanistan, which includes about 2,500 Canadians, to be expanded by 20,000 more troops. But anything approaching a boost of that size now seems a remote possibility. Europe remains deeply divided over Afghanistan, with only a few countries, notably Britain, the Netherlands and Poland, sending troops to fight with Canadian, U.S. and Afghan forces in the most dangerous parts of the country. At a recent NATO summit meeting in Latvia, France, Germany, Italy and Spain refused to lift so-called caveats that prevent their troops from being sent to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan's dangerous south and east. Harper used the summit to press more European nations to contribute troops to combat, but without much success.

In the U.S., however, elite opinion appears to be swinging in favour of shoring up the fight in Afghanistan, even as talk of finding a way to exit Iraq grows. A key signal came in early December with the release of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's report. "It is critical for the United States to provide additional political, economic and military support for Afghanistan," recommended the panel co-chaired by James Baker, the Republican former secretary of state, and former Democratic representative Lee Hamilton, "including resources that might become available as combat forces are moved from Iraq."

As Iraq looks increasingly like a lost cause, the prospect of U.S. politicians fastening on Afghanistan as the war worth fighting could emerge as a mixed blessing for Harper. An even bigger U.S. commitment would be welcomed. But the impression that this is really Washington's war, not NATO's, would provide ammunition to the BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS and NDP, both of which oppose the current mission on the grounds that there's too much combat and not enough reconstruction. In fact, Bloc Leader Gilles DUCEPPE even mused about trying to bring down Harper's minority with a non-confidence vote over Afghanistan in February, forcing a winter election. But both NDP Leader Jack LAYTON and Liberal Leader Stéphane DION said they would not vote for such a Bloc motion, easing the immediate pressure on Harper.

Still, reframing the Kandahar story remains one of his biggest challenges. Polls show declining popular support for soldiering on in Afghanistan, with 61 per cent of Canadians opposed to our troops fighting there in a Dec. 3 opinion survey by the Strategic Counsel, up from 53 per cent in October. Those numbers are unquestionably driven by these: 36 Canadian troops and one diplomat killed in Afghanistan in 2006. And if 2007 racks up a similar toll of casualties, it's doubtful any amount of good work by the PRT will be able to turn opinion around before voters are called to the polls that matter.

Maclean's January 1, 2007