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Kandahar residents feel less safe, says Canada's outgoing commander

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - The sense of security among people right across Kandahar province has "absolutely plummeted," the outgoing commander of Canadian troops in Afghanistan said Wednesday in a brutally frank summation of the war during his nine months on the ground.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - The sense of security among people right across Kandahar province has "absolutely plummeted," the outgoing commander of Canadian troops in Afghanistan said Wednesday in a brutally frank summation of the war during his nine months on the ground.

Public opinion surveys conducted by the Canadian military suggest confidence has evaporated in the face of what Brig.-Gen. Denis Thompson described as a "twisted and extreme" insurgency that thinks nothing of "brainwashing" a 12-year-old boy into becoming a suicide bomber.

"It should come as no surprise to any here that these past nine months have not been sufficient to win the war," Thompson said at the outset of his farewell statement to journalists at Kandahar Airfield.

Ultimately, the war is up to the Afghans to win, Thompson said, who also praised the courage and tenacity of his own troops.

But he also recited a long list of spectacular and frustrating attacks that have undermined not only Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government, but also the credibility of NATO's pledge to bring security and reconstruction to the region.

"Afghans are frustrated by the lack of progress of their own government and the international community, that is true," Thompson said. "But they are even more horrified by the atrocities committed on a daily basis by the insurgents."

Over the last nine months, the Taliban attacked Sarpoza prison with a truck bomb, setting free nearly 900 inmates; bombed the Afghan National Police headquarters in Kandahar, killing eight officers; and attacked the provincial council office.

At one point last May, Canadian soldiers faced a 12-year-old suicide bomber and last fall 15 Afghan school girls had acid spewed in their faces.

Militants also carried out a campaign of intimidation and assassination, killing a number of tribal and religious leaders. They've sown the streets of Afghanistan's second-largest city with dozens of roadside bombs over the last week.

In the end, all of the bloodshed has won the Taliban nothing and only served to isolate them from the Afghan people, Thompson declared.

Over the last 18 months, the Canadian military has conducted several public opinion surveys in the war-ravaged city of Kandahar, asking residents about their level of support for the Afghan government, the Taliban and their perception of public safety.

Surveys conducted in late 2007 and early 2008 found 55 per cent of respondents saying they lived in a secure environment, but Thompson said that figure is now down to about 25 per cent.

Support for both Karzai's government and the Taliban have remained largely static, he added: Roughly 70 per cent of those asked said they support the government, while the Taliban pulls down between 15 and 20 per cent support at any given time.

Although the surveys have typically been released in Canada under federal Access to Information laws, the results have always been heavily censored and kept as a closely guarded secret.

The methodology and sample size for the surveys were not released.

Thompson's candid assessment was a reflection of the changing face of the war in southern Afghanistan, where the ranks of local militants have been depleted by three years of heavy fighting.

Increasingly, those local commanders are being replaced by hard-line Islamists, such as those with the Haqqani network - full-throated terrorists with no connection to the communities they remorselessly attack.

During Thompson's nine months in Afghanistan, 25 Canadian soldiers were killed in combat, most of them by powerful roadside bombs.

Like many other generals who have gone before him but painted rosier assessments of the conflict and Canada's role in it, Thompson cited progress in standing up Afghan National Army units and training police to handle their own security.

He said reconstruction activities have made gains - especially in the building of roads, where progress is measured metre by metre - but in the end conceded that development remains "painfully slow by Western standards."

 
 
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