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Reshaping military post-Afghanistan starts with command shake-up

OTTAWA - A pair of Canadian soldiers leapt off one of the army's new Leopard 2A6M battle tanks recently at a forward operating base in the desert west of Kandahar city and landed within sight of their commander.

OTTAWA - A pair of Canadian soldiers leapt off one of the army's new Leopard 2A6M battle tanks recently at a forward operating base in the desert west of Kandahar city and landed within sight of their commander.

Behind them the barrels of a pair of gleaming M-777 howitzers were raised skyward.

The soldiers debated, as soldiers often do lately, about the merits of living side-by-side with Afghan troops.

Throughout it all Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, the outgoing commander of the army, simply marvelled at the scene.

This was not the army he inherited four years ago, the army that he will give up commanding on Monday.

"The army's changed more over the last four to five years than over the previous 30-40; building on the good work of everyone who's come before us, those who kept the enthusiasm and warrior's spirit alive," said Leslie, one of the country's more recognizable military figures.

Leslie's long been considered a candidate for the top job of chief of defence staff.

Some would argue that it's in his blood. Brooke Claxton and Gen. Andrew MacNaughton, Leslie's grandfathers, were defence ministers and both fought at Vimy Ridge.

He will hand over command of the army to Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin at a ceremony in Ottawa.

Since 2006 it has been Leslie's job to assemble, train and equip the army for the Afghan war. His new job will be to help shepherd the entire Canadian Forces towards its post-Afghanistan future at a time when the Conservative government is wrestling with an expected $49-billion deficit.

When Leslie took over, there was still a Cold War mindset, where soldiers were prepared to fight on the plains of western Europe against a long vanquished foe.

Instead, the army he led had to learn how to fight among an indifferent population against mountain tribesmen who use plastic jugs full of fertilizer as extremely effective weapons.

Leslie is the new Chief of Transformation.

But the question often asked around Ottawa these days is: The Canadian Forces is being transformed, but into what?

Four years of fighting a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan has given Canada a lean, lethal, little force. It is all dressed up, and post-Afghanistan, has seemingly nowhere to go.

Parliamentarians began trying to wrap their heads around the military's future this spring as the House of Commons defence committee began studying what role the military will play in peace operations after the Afghan mission ends in July 2011.

There are those in Ottawa for whom the Afghan experience has been so traumatizing that the thought of sending the army anywhere prompts shivers down their spine.

Retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie, who spoke before the committee last week, said with characteristic bluntness that Canada must have a coherent foreign policy before it decides where the military goes next.

Leslie said defence planners have spun together different scenarios of what future missions could look like, but even he sounded like he had more questions than answers.

"In an era of physical prudence, what direction will the Canadian Forces take? How can we reduce overhead while re-investing in the battalions and regiments, the ships that sail and the people who work on the flight lines?"

National Defence has been ordered to save $1 billion this year. Leslie, who is well-spoken and politically savvy, is seen as the one of the best people to make the case for the Forces, but he insisted his role will be largely out of the limelight.

MacKenzie argued that regardless of scenarios the military is still too small, even with Conservative promises to expand it even more to carry out the tasks government could potentially throw at it.

He said the size of the regular force should increase to 100,000 from the current 68,000 and there should be a substantial jump in the reserve units.

 
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