Bringing in the special forces

Brian Stewart on the implications for Canada in the renewed Afghan mission.

Behind all the public relations bluster in Afghanistan by both NATO and the Taliban, the fact is that the past two years have been a dreary and bloody stalemate.

Although the Taliban have made alarming advances in neighbouring Pakistan, neither the insurgents nor a weary NATO have been able to gain an upper hand inside Afghanistan itself.

That said, events on the ground in Afghanistan are changing dramatically and bear close watching over the coming weeks. Especially in the six southern provinces, where 80 per cent of the actual war has been fought by overstretched Canadian troops alongside generally modest forces from eight other allied nations.

Captain Richard Roy (right), from Kentville, N.S., a pilot employed with the Civilian Military Cooperation cell, talks with an Afghan local during a foot patrol in Kandahar in June 2009. (Sgt. Paz Quill/DND)

This is because the so-called U.S. surge that is just taking shape goes well beyond the arrival of fresh troops.

It also involves an important shift in combat doctrine, command structure and even in the type of allied soldiers who are putting their boots on the ground.

The surge in no way guarantees defeat of the Taliban. However, it's likely the best shot — perhaps the last shot — that NATO will get to reverse the course of the war, at least enough to encourage peace overtures within a few years.

Specially trained

What we're about to see is a rapid escalation in extremely rugged counter-insurgency operations, at a time when the Pakistan army looks to be finally adding to the pressure from its side of this fight.

Half of the 21,000 new U.S. troops have already arrived and are spreading out across the six southern provinces. The surge will concentrate on Taliban areas in this area, as well as their infiltration routes from Pakistan, which borders four of these provinces.

Within a month, the total number of NATO troops in the south will have climbed to 45,000, to be augmented by several thousand Afghan troops.

NATO' s best guess at this point is that Taliban strength in the region is around 8,000-15,000 fighters.

More important to watch than the numbers, however, is the kind of units arriving in the south. Most are special forces of one kind or another. In other words, soldiers extensively trained for counter-insurgency operations.

The first 10,000 Americans are highly mobile Marines, including many Iraq veterans who are well supplied with helicopters and have been hard training for months for this mission.

Less noticed has been the arrival from other countries of some of the toughest fighting units on Earth.

The targets

The British are sending in a mini-surge of elite special forces, including 800 more SAS (Special Air Service) soldiers along with a similar number of Royal Navy commandos. They'll form part of a counter-insurgency special forces support group.

Australians, operating just to the north of the Canadian force in Kandahar, are also bringing in their own formidable SAS teams, which will increase their overall fighting force in the region to 1,500.

Add in close to 500 commandos from New Zealand, as well as Canada's own elite and super-secret JTF-2 commandos, many with long experience tracking Taliban units.

The gung-ho military terminology can be tiresome — special forces, commandos, elite this and that. But what it all boils down to is a much greater emphasis on moving ultra-quickly against key targets.

These include Taliban leadership in the field, the makers of the improvised bombs, Taliban safe houses and ammunition sites, illegal drug operations, and above all, the cross-border routes from Pakistan.

Hearts and minds

One key aim of the hit-and-scoop-up operations is to try to force insurgents to keep their heads down, at least during the run-up to the crucial Afghan election in August.

This is not aimed, necessarily, at keeping Hamid Karzai in power. Allied commanders hope that if the Taliban leaders find they cannot sabotage the election, they may well become demoralized enough to start thinking about peace talks.

"We need to change the calculus of the average Taliban fighter," one senior commander observed this week. "They won't want to talk if they feel like they're winning. Right now they think they have the upper hand."

What NATO command won't say openly is that they're hoping their carefully planned "surgical" operations on the ground can also replace the need for the air attacks, which have caused many civilian deaths and a growing animosity towards foreign troops in general.

Skeptics may doubt there is much desire to reduce civilian casualties on the part of Western planners. But, in fact, it's utterly central to the thinking of the new U.S. commanders trying to salvage this war.

Indeed, it is at the very heart of the so-called "Petraeus Doctrine" of counter-insurgency, currently dominating Pentagon-think.

Named after Gen. David Petraeus, the chief architect of the late-hour troop surge in Iraq, the doctrine insists that the guiding rule of any successful counter-insurgency is to protect the local population.

Many factors are required to defeat insurgents, the doctrine notes, including an intense campaign momentum, more development aid, civil reform, outreach to enemies, even basic "good manners."

But if armies cannot avoid civilian deaths — and civilian loathing — and offer the local populace basic security, then any effort is doomed to fail.

More help, please Canada

Petraeus, by far the most influential officer of his generation, now oversees the whole Afghan campaign as head of the U.S. Central Command. His views are firmly embraced by the current White House as well as by U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, the well-respected holdover from the last of the Bush years.

Some weeks ago when the then U.S commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, seemed slow to get the point, he was summarily fired by Gates, becoming the first field commander sent packing in over a half-century.

His replacement, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is a leading special operations veteran, credited with doing much of the heavy lifting during the Iraq surge. His marching orders are to show results fast.

One aim of that is to convince the Pakistan government next door that similar tactics should now be employed by its army against Taliban strongholds, with stealthy NATO help if necessary.

Another aim of the current the build up of U.S. forces is to put maximum pressure on those other NATO allies who have not yet committed as much as they could to the effort.

In this regard, new calls for help will inevitably be made on Canada's Kandahar force, even though it is one of the few NATO forces respected for its past efforts by the U.S.

But in war, as in civilian office work, "the willing" are rewarded with ever larger work loads. Canadians will likely be involved in more search operations and will probably face more requests to hold ground and villages taken by the new special forces.

For their part, Canada's commanders in the field are happy to see the reinforcements. But at the same time they will now have to brace their own tired forces for a very busy and unpredictable few months ahead.