Canadians have improved security in Kandahar, says Afghan general

Soldiers from the Princess Patricia Light Infantry participated in 2006’s Operation Medusa, which an Afghan general credited with pushing the Taliban out of Kandahar Province.

KABUL — Kandahar, where Canadian forces are responsible for security, is no longer the most hazardous place in Afghanistan, according to a senior Afghan general.

“It is now Helmand that is the most dangerous, not Kandahar,” said General Zahir Azimi in an interview over lunch this week in the Afghan capital.

“This is because Canadian troops have done a great job in their area. They have changed Kandahar from being the most volatile place to the second most volatile place.”

The general, who was dressed in a sharp business suit rather than the motley green battle fatigues favoured by most Afghan commanders, said with a smile that such an improvement might not sound like much to outsiders, but “this is real progress. The Taliban had control of Panjwaii, Zhari and Arghandab districts (in Kandahar), but that changed after Operation Medusa and the situation continues to improve.”

Medusa was the code name for a bloody, large-scale combat operation against the Taliban to the west of Kandahar City in the late summer and fall of 2006. It was mostly led by a battle group from the Royal Canadian Regiment which replaced a similar group from the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry when they rotated back to Canada early in the battle.

The general, who fought the Red Army during the 1980s, and is now senior spokesman for the defence ministry, said the simplest way to defeat the Taliban was “to heighten the capacity of the Afghan army.”

In support of his argument he cited a recent Washington Post opinion piece by Senator Joe Lieberman in which he said the cost of having one foreign soldier in Afghanistan was 60 to 70 times higher than the cost of one Afghan soldier.

“What is needed is for the international community to agree on the size of the Afghan National Army required to defend the country,” Azimi said.

As for the right size for the army, the general thought that “200,000 is a very realistic number.”

That was about 120,000 more troops than the current intended size of the Afghan force which, Lieberman wrote, was “nowhere near the numbers to secure (Afghanistan) against an increasingly sophisticated insurgency.”

While a staunch supporter of NATO, Gen. Azimi was politely critical of some aspects of Western policy towards Afghanistan, such as the quality of the weapons supplied to Afghan government forces from the arsenals of Korea and the former East Germany.

Turning to the question of narcotics, which are believed to provide the Taliban with much of its funding, Azimi complained that the international community was “like an ostrich” that had failed to understand the problem because it “tried to make this a political issue when it is an issue that should be dealt with directly.”

Afghanistan’s drug problem had several aspects, he said. While Afghans grew “poppy, they don’t supply the chemicals, they don’t transport it and they are not the market for the product, so don’t only pressure us to do something about this,” he said.

“If it is best to eradicate poppies, hundreds of thousands of farmers will align themselves with the Taliban unless they have another means of livelihood or subsidized alternative crops to cultivate and market such as cotton or tomatoes or potatoes.”

As for corruption, “this is as big a problem as the problems of security and poppy.”

But the general wondered again why only Afghans were accused of being corrupt when, in his view, “the international community legalizes corruption” by allowing foreign contractors to be preferential bidders on huge projects from their own countries.

Using a $500-million road project as an example, he said the winning foreign bidder would hire out sub-contractors to do the work for $300-million, pocketing the difference. These sub-contractors would in turn farm the work out to even smaller companies for smaller sums, once again pocketing the difference.

“Only maybe $150-million of a $500-million road project will actually be spent on construction,” he said and Afghan companies, which were at the bottom of this long feeding change were left with was a very small piece of the pie.

Despite these criticisms, Azimi said Afghans much preferred having NATO here than the Red Army.

“The Russians were invaders. NATO is here on a mandate. The Russians came to Afghanistan for their country and killed all who opposed them. NATO comes to help. These are two different things.”