Law and disorder

Canadian troops are doing their best to fight by the rules in Afghanistan, even as the death toll rises and they are forced to cede territory to the Taliban. Graeme Wood reports from Kandahar’s Zhari district.

From The National:

ScreenHunter_06 Jan. 23 12.21 Over the last three years, the Canadian military and Afghan security forces have fought the Taliban to a bloody stalemate. The Afghan police and army routinely drive over roadside bombs on Highway One, Zhari’s main road, which is bumpy with filled-in craters. In Zhari’s villages (there is no settlement larger than a cluster of a few war-demolished mud buildings), insurgents mount ambushes nearly every day. The Canadians, for their part, have tried to fight the war cleanly, with at times absurd levels of attention to law and rules of engagement. And despite being a modern and impressive fighting force, with armoured vehicles and innovative counterinsurgency tactics, they have died at a rate alarming even for a war zone – over 100 since 2001, in a force of only 2,500 (many of whom are not in combat roles). That death rate exceeds not only the US death rate in Afghanistan, but also the US death rate in Iraq.

The Canadians and their Afghan collaborators have maintained the initiative, says Brig Gen Denis Thompson, the top-ranking Canadian soldier in Afghanistan. But they have had to concede ground – including Singesar itself, the birthplace of the Taliban. In May 2008, the Canadian and Afghan base in Singesar closed after just months in service. To resupply the base, Thompson says, required a battalion-level operation once per month. And on each mission the supply vehicles took fire. “The calculation is: ‘How much of this ground can we physically hold?’” Thompson says. The base could have remained open as long as the Canadians chose. But considering the demands it placed on resources, and the greater effect the same resources could have elsewhere, it had to be shuttered. Nevertheless, the closing was almost certainly a propaganda victory for the Taliban.

More here.