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General frets about home front

Canadian commander worries that we 'are our own worst critics'

Mitch Potter, Toronto Star, 1 Oct 06


It is the Canadian public and not the Taliban that is the greatest threat to peace and prosperity in Afghanistan, Canada's top military man on the ground told the Star.


In one of his most pointed political statements to date, Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, commander of NATO's eight-nation effort to put down southern Afghanistan's increasingly visible insurgency, said the weakest link in the mission is Canadians' tendency to seize on negatives and worry them to death.


The formula for failure, Fraser said, is "our country not supporting the needs of the Afghans who are looking for a future. We need to see this through for as long as Afghans want us here."


Fraser told the Star the complexities of the challenge in volatile Kandahar and its neighbouring provinces, where Taliban attacks have surged over the summer, play directly into Canadian anxieties.


But what many Canadians don't understand, he said, is that attacks are increasing for the very reason that NATO and the new Afghan government are gaining the upper hand and "the Taliban see their window of opportunity closing.


"The more success we have, the more they will attack. The further out we get into the hinterland, the more they come and attack us.


"And we have spread out far more this summer than ever we had in the past. And it's putting more pressure on the Taliban leadership as we go into their backyard. We're in Helmond province and we weren't there last year. We're in Shawali Khot and we weren't last year. We're now all over Zabul, which we weren't last year. And we've spread out in Uruzgon, with 1,000 more troops."


Canadians, said Fraser, tend to be "our own worst critics. We criticize absolutely everything. We will find the pimple in the navel and we'll say, `My God, look at that pimple!'


"But let's not be overly critical of ourselves. We're gaining momentum now. Let's put our shoulders behind it and get the work done."


Fraser, who will cede command of the 8,000-strong NATO force in southern Afghanistan next month, said he was never under any illusion of speedy victory when he assumed leadership of the mission eight months ago.


"I felt I could make an improvement, but I did not believe I would declare victory. Anybody who says they can declare victory in a summer is naïve," he said.


"The campaign to help build a nation will not be won this summer or next summer. It will take time. How much time? As long as it takes."


Fraser acknowledged the criticism of certain front-line combat troops, including several quoted yesterday in a Star report from the Panjwaii district west of Kandahar, where NATO believes hundreds of insurgents died in the recent Canadian-led Operation Medusa.


He said that any soldier who lacks faith in the need to follow up the fighting with an all-out campaign to win over the loyalty of locals is simply not with the program.


"Those soldiers who criticize, they're seeing this much of the battle space," said Fraser, holding his hands close together.


"My battle space is 220,000 square kilometres. And I tell you, this is about hearts and minds. This is about winning with an idea. Our fight is not with the people of Afghanistan — they are looking at both the Taliban and their government and wondering who to side with.


"So, when the Afghan government enters an area, our job is to make sure there is not just security but education, medical care and reconstruction. It's all about building. And what does the Taliban offer? Destruction. No building, just destruction."


Fraser, who has logged seven tours of duty during 26 years of military service, called Afghanistan "the most complex environment I've ever worked in.


"I thought Bosnia was difficult. That was a walk in the park compared to this place. Because there, you only had three groups — Serbs, Croats and Muslims.


"Here? You have a multitude of tribes, you have religion and you have the Islamic republic of Afghanistan trying to create a marriage with a tribal system that's been around for thousands of years.


"And you have a population that is recovering not only from 25 years of fighting, starting with the Soviets.


"They are recovering from a history of seeing so many people come through, going all the way back to Alexander the Great, people that haven't been altruistic in their motives."


Saying that "this is not a military mission any more," Fraser described the upcoming phase of the mission as one that will place far more emphasis on the efforts of the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar, a branch that has yet to deliver much in the way of visible improvements on the ground.


"In any mission, it takes time to come up to speed and I think the PRT has done an awful lot. Can we do more? Absolutely. We have an insatiable appetite to do more for people who have absolutely nothing."


Drawing a direct link between Canada's ethical approach to the two world wars of the 20th century and the challenges of Afghanistan, Fraser called the recent battle in Panjwaii district "the reaffirmation of what Canada did in 1914.


"It was one of the hardest things we've done for a very long time. Canada led the operation, NATO's biggest one ever, and successfully defeated the Taliban in this area. Canada did what was right and the cost was not insignificant."


Addressing critics who argue that a just cause alone does not guarantee victory, Fraser said Canadians should have the patience to let Afghans answer that question.


"It is the Afghans' choice. If they don't want us here any more, all they have to do is stand up and say, `Please leave. We don't think you can be of assistance.' But that's not the message I'm getting.


"We're getting this right. We just have to persevere and stick it out."


When Fraser steps down in November, his departure will introduce the difficult personal legacy of having led the bloodiest Canadian campaign since the Korean War. He readily acknowledges the fact.


"Every life given here, every soldier that is wounded and will live for the rest of his life with scars, either physical or mental, has to understand that what he or she did here this summer and this fall meant something," said Fraser.


"I go to that hospital every day when there is a soldier that is wounded. I go over there to console a soldier, I come away inspired by their commitment and their determination to say, `I want to get back out there.'


"You know, polls be damned. With the men and women in this theatre and the support we get from the government, we're going to go through it. We're going to see it through."

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