In war it can be useful to see ourselves as others do, for outsiders can set aside those deep and natural ties of affection for our soldiers that sometimes cloud one's vision.

Foreign military observers can concentrate on what works and what does not, and if they see "failure" in the campaigns of others they're less shy about using the word.

At the moment — at least as others see us — Canada is coming in for some hard knocks for the job we are doing in Kandahar.

The most stinging critique is a new 72-page study by an influential U.S. think tank, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

Titled "The Taliban's Campaign for Kandahar," the study claims the guerrillas seriously outmaneuvered a hopelessly under-strength Canadian battle group that was never able to put more than a few hundred soldiers into combat operations at the same time.

The Taliban, the analysis argues, used diversionary attacks to draw Canadian units into costly sideshows in the province's rural Zhari and Panjwai districts, just west of Kandahar City, where they were never able to hold ground they took.

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Overextended? Eric Tremblay of Montreal takes a break in a grape field while patrolling in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province in September 2009. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

What the Canadians should have done, it's claimed here, is concentrate all their efforts on protecting Kandahar City, the provincial capital of roughly 500,000, and a key objective of Taliban strategy in the south.

As a result, the report says, "this campaign ultimately developed into a costly stalemate" that left the Taliban free to reorganize and "advance on Kandahar City from the north."

A big setback

It should be stressed that the courage and professionalism of Canadian soldiers is nowhere slighted in this report. Indeed, it confirms that the Taliban were badly beaten by the initial Canadian campaigns in 2006.

But the American military seems convinced that Canada's Kandahar campaign in southern Afghanistan is one of the more serious setbacks suffered in the whole war.

The analysis plays directly into NATO's dread that the Taliban might draw Western forces into fighting inside a highly populated urban area, such as Kandahar City.

Now, I'm not entirely convinced by the study, but it's worth noting because it likely reflects current U.S. military thinking.

The ISW is closely identified with the latest counter-insurgency and "surge" schools of thought championed by top U.S. commanders such as Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new supreme commander in Afghanistan.

One senses in this study the views of McChrystal supporters throughout. And the fact remains that the Taliban ended up with strong positions in the Arghandab valley just north of Kandahar City and have infiltrated into three suburbs on the north, west and southwest.

Getting them out of there is now the preoccupation of the U.S. reinforcements that have moved in to join the Canadians.

Thin red line

And after reading numerous sources now describe the repeated Canadian failures to hold the ground taken from insurgents, I'm left wondering what on earth the Canadian government thought it was doing when it decided that a tiny force of 2,200 (now 2,800), without even helicopters at first, could hold down all of Kandahar province, population one million, the very heartland of the Taliban.

When they arrived in 2006, the Canadians replaced a much stronger U.S. force. And while the Taliban seemed dormant at the time, early intelligence warnings noted they were merely regrouping for a counteroffensive.

Since then, talk about your thin red line!

Canadian officers have often struggled to command only two infantry companies stretched 100 kilometres apart. They were really only able to support 380 infantry in the field for any length of time.

In hindsight, these numbers look even more ludicrous today.

Just consider that in the neighbouring Helmand province, a full British brigade of 5,500, including elite parachute troops with helicopters, had trouble holding their own in an area of less strategic importance to the Taliban.

According to the report, the big blunder of the war in the south was to leave the under-resourced Canadians to hold Kandahar, the true axis of the battle in the region, while focusing on the struggle in Helmand, a mistake blamed on McChrystal's predecessor, who was fired abruptly earlier this year.

This may be overly simplistic. Helmand is a major transit route for Taliban headed for Kandahar.

But, still, the weak garrisoning of Kandahar is an historical fact that can't be shrugged off by either NATO or the Harper government, which ruthlessly imposed budget caps that restricted Canadian troop strength.

Not lost

In an interview, the author of the report, military analyst Carl Forsberg said: "It did surprise me that Canada did not make more noise about the difficult situation it was in, and did not press loudly more for outside help."

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U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, wants more boots on the ground and in the communities.

Forsberg spent over a year researching and analyzing the campaign in Kandahar and his findings suggest Canada's role there remains one of the many questions still to be answered in the conduct of this war.

The report pounds away at consistent weaknesses.

On their own, Canadian units "were too small to employ important counter-insurgency tactics, like conducting clearing missions and holding terrain … and were limited in their ability to generate actionable intelligence … and there were insufficient troops to conduct night patrols for more than a few weeks at a time or in large areas."

Most serious, from the McChrystal-camp viewpoint, was the failure of Canadians to consistently pursue counter-insurgency actions because of rising casualties from Taliban bombings.

While it makes gloomy reading, the report is careful, however, not to call the Kandahar campaign "lost."

Three U.S. battalions have now been put under Canadian command, almost doubling the entire Kandahar force to 5,000 or so and more are on their way.

These soldiers will now be able to do more patrolling on foot in heavily populated areas (and inevitably face more risks while doing so).

"Starting today we move forward in a new way," McChrystal told allied officers at Kandahar airport this past week, a sentiment that seemed to sit well with Canada's commander, Gen. Daniel Menard.

However much Ottawa — and much of Canada — has come to hate this long and draining campaign, at least our soldiers can finally share the risks with some decent company.