KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Canada will still have lots to do in Afghanistan even if its combat role ends as planned in 2011, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Monday at the end of a visit to Canadian forces.
The focus will be on aid and governance, something that is already occurring as 200 new U.S. soldiers arrive every week to this ever-expanding military base in southern Afghanistan with a renewed mission to subdue a bloody insurgency.
The Canadian mission is increasingly focusing on the population centres of Kandahar province – ensuring the safety and the well being of individuals and the population itself, MacKay said.
The idea is to try to secure the populated centres to allow enhanced humanitarian aid, build schools, provide immunizations and enable micro-finance credit.
“Its microcosms of the whole of government approach in concentrated areas of population rather than simply focusing on holding swaths of land,” MacKay said.
Canada, he said, no longer cares to concentrate its efforts on taking and “holding swaths of land.”
The defence minister spent more than two days at the sprawling military base visiting with Canadian forces, accompanied by Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson.
On Sunday evening at a meet-and-greet barbecue with some Canadian soldiers, MacKay said he had no plans to follow the lead of U.S. President Barack Obama and replace Canada’s top soldier in Afghanistan.
On the contrary, he said as he stood next to a memorial to fallen Canadian soldiers, the government had “great confidence” in the command.
The Americans and other countries are also moving toward Canada’s approach or attempting to temper military action with non-combat aid and reconstruction efforts, he said.
The comments came after he announced 11 new facilities to support soldiers who return to Canada with illnesses or injuries.
“We are very seized and very conscious of the fact that we have to do a better job of taking care of our men and women in uniform when they return from service, particularly in a mission like Afghanistan which is very demanding,” MacKay told the soldiers.
MacKay was careful to avoid criticizing the Americans for an increasing number of civilian casualties, particularly in air strikes, something Canada does not take part in.
“We obviously take great pains not to have civilian casualties in any instance but this is a very insidious type of warfare that the Taliban are engaged in,” MacKay said.
The Taliban, he noted, does not “play by any rules of engagement.”
The defence minister was expected to head to Pakistan later Monday for talks with his counterpart Ahmad Mukhtar in Islamabad.
The meeting was being described as a general discussion on regional issues, but came just days after MacKay said instability was making Pakistan perhaps the most dangerous country in the world.