World

Canada takes charge north of Kandahar city

NATO commanders in Afghanistan have put Canada in charge of a district north of Kandahar city that has seen heavy fighting in the past two years.

Taliban attacks intensifying in district

A Canadian soldier stands on alert at a roadside checkpoint in Arghandab district. ((Allauddin Khan/Associated Press))

NATO commanders in Afghanistan have put Canada in charge of a district north of Kandahar city that has seen heavy fighting in the past two years.

Brig.-Gen. Frederick Hodges, director of operations for NATO's southern command, said Canada would take control of the Arghandab district.

The district was Canada's responsibility until August this year, when Canadian forces handed over its duties to the U.S. as part of a scaling back of military operations to Kandahar city and a few turbulent outlying regions.

It's not clear what impact the renewed duties in Arghandab will mean for Canada's forces, most of whom are currently stationed in and around Kandahar city.

Arghandab: Kandahar's breadbasket

The Arghandab district north of Kandahar city, named for the Arghandab River, is a site of strategic importance to a revitalized Afghanistan and also the site of one of Canada's more ambitious infrastructure contributions to the country.

For centuries the Arghandab Valley has been known as fertile ground for crops such as pomegranates and saffron, and in the 1950s the United States built the Dahla Dam and a network of canals along the river to improve agriculture in the region.

But the district and dam have fallen into disrepair, and Canada has taken a lead in repairing the infrastructure, investing $50 million to upgrade the dam and surrounding area.

So far, Canada's projects have included the construction, at a cost of about $700,000, of a causeway across the river, allowing crossings even when the water rises in the spring.

The Canadian International Development Agency has also overseen completion of a 21-metre long reinforced-concrete girder bridge that permits heavy vehicles to carry loads to the dam site. CIDA is also working with local officials to train farmers in water management and crop techniques.

The fertile Arghandab region has seen an increase in fighting as Taliban-led militants have made efforts to move into the area.

3 soldiers killed in IED blast

Afghan troops, under the guidance of Canadian forces, launched an offensive in June of last year to counter Taliban gains, but attacks have continued.

In March of this year three Canadian soldiers were killed in the region after a roadside bomb exploded near their armoured vehicle.

Warrant Officer Dennis Raymond Brown, Cpl. Dany Fortin and Cpl. Kenneth O'Quinn were sent into the area in response to a call by the Afghan National Police to dispose of an improvised explosive device. They were able to defuse the bomb and were returning to base when they were struck by another IED.

Eight American soldiers and an interpreter were also killed in separate IED attacks in the district on the same day in October of this year.

The shift in responsibility for Canada comes as U.S. President Barack Obama is set to announce a new strategy in Afghanistan on Tuesday evening. He is expected to commit thousands of American troops to the NATO effort to secure the southern part of the country.

More U.S. troops expected

Hodges said Task Force Kandahar will have an additional American battalion and an Afghan National Army unit by the new year. He said the changes would come regardless of whether Obama decides to deploy additional troops.

NATO spokesperson James Appathurai said a number of countries, such as Slovakia and Italy, have announced increases in recent weeks, and on Monday British Prime Minister Gordon Brown committed 500 more troops to the region.

(CBC)

NATO is planning to use Obama's announcement to spur other countries to make further troop commitments, Appathurai said.

"What we want to see from NATO headquarters is for all of the allies to see what more they can do," he said.

Appathurai added that Canada's performance in Afghanistan is considered "A-1" by the NATO alliance.

There are 2,800 Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, primarily in Kandahar province. The government has said all Canadian troops will be withdrawn in 2011.

With files from the Canadian Press

now