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Winning hearts and minds, in Afghanistan and Canada

Spreading the word at home is commander's latest mission

ESTANISLAO OZIEWICZ, Globe & Mail, 12 Jan 07

Article Link


After nine months commanding NATO forces in battled-scarred southern Afghanistan, Brigadier-General David Fraser is back home selling the Canadian mission -- with gusto.


When the veteran infantry officer wasn't directing the fierce fight against Taliban insurgents, he was engaging the hearts and minds of Afghans.


Now, he's talking to any Canadian who will listen about what he maintains is a vital role in Afghanistan.


In his media and lecture circuit, the main message, carefully scripted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government, is that Canadian troops are turning back the Taliban and helping to rebuild a shattered and destitute country.


"It's a little of both," Gen. Fraser said in an interview when asked whether spreading the word was his idea or that of his political and military masters in Ottawa.


"This is a great Canadian story that has to be told. This is about Canada helping those less fortunate than us, helping those in Afghanistan build a nation. Canada is owed a progress report, what it is we're doing over there."


Gen. Fraser, who was a key figure in developing a program to "embed" reporters and photographers with Canadian combat troops, said he has done his own poll about whether Canadian soldiers ought to remain in Afghanistan, notwithstanding last year's long list of casualties and the prospect of more to come.


"In 26 years, I've learned soldiers don't lie. If soldiers like something or don't like something, they will tell you. Well, the soldiers I've talked to all believe in what they're doing over there.


"The families of our soldiers believe in what we're doing over there. . . . The families of our fallen comrades, they are all telling me the same thing: Our sons and daughters, our husbands and wives, our boyfriends and girlfriends, they all believe in what they're doing."


Gen. Fraser likes to relate an anecdote illustrating the progress made in Afghanistan, thanks, in part, to Canadian efforts. He said that when he arrived in Kandahar, he met the provincial governor, Assadullah Khalid, whose chief instrument of governing apparently was a handgun.


"If there was an issue, he would run downtown with a pistol to solve it," Gen. Fraser said. "Can you imagine the premier of Ontario solving the Hells Angels problem or some other criminal activity by running out with a shotgun or a pistol?


"We didn't hire him or elect him to do that. Eight months after mentoring Assadullah, he now picks up a pen or picks up a cellphone and he calls somebody or writes a letter to provide guidance. That's progress."


Gen. Fraser reeled off the kilometres of roads rebuilt, canals constructed and local councils that have been reconstituted.


With Canada's help, he said, Afghanistan has gone from being the second-poorest country in the world to the fifth. And yet, he cautioned, "it's going to take years to put this country back together again."


One of Afghanistan's most intractable and troubling problems is the country's opium industry. According to some estimates, opium production grew 49 per cent last year to 6,700 tonnes, most of it in the south.


Eradication has long been the choice of the United States, which, along with Britain, leads the Afghan initiative to counter narcotics. Washington even wants to spray herbicide on poppy fields, a plan that the Afghan government is considering.


Opponents of strong-arm eradication methods argue that it serves only to alienate impoverished farmers and would place Canadian troops in more danger.


While Gen. Fraser believes that opium is a scourge whose trade lines the pockets of drug barons and the Taliban, another approach should be considered, one that he has proposed to key allied envoys and his own superiors.


Plowing up poppy farmers' fields merely disenfranchises Afghans, he said. "The first time the Afghan people see their government in action has been when the Afghan eradication force shows up to plow in their fields."


There's another way to control the crop, he said.


"We have the Wheat Board in Canada and farm subsidies. Why don't we do something similar in Afghanistan that we do all around the world: subsidize the farmers to grow legitimate crops, be it nuts -- which Afghanistan is good for -- grapes, corn or millet.


"You get $10 an acre for growing poppy. We'll give you $8 to grow wheat. There are markets for wheat, it's legitimate, you can build on it and the economy benefits from it, not the Taliban."

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