Canada Bears Brunt of Fighting in South Afghanistan

Arif Lalani, Canada's Ambassador to Afghanistan, says his country is still adjusting to its role in fighting the Taliban in Southern Afghanistan. He also says Canada is making progress in and around Kandahar — in both security and reconstruction. Lalani talks with host Renee Montagne.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Whenever you hear that a NATO soldier has been killed in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar, it's probably a Canadian soldier. Canada only has 2,500 troops in Afghanistan but they are fighting in one of the most dangerous regions of the country. So while Canadian troops make up only a small fraction of NATO forces, they've suffered the highest number of fatalities proportionately.

And this high death toll has led to a lot of protests in Canada about the mission in Afghanistan. Arif Lalani is Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan. He's in Washington this week and joins us in our studio. Good morning.

Mr. ARIF LALANI (Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Canadian troops have been under fire in Kandahar since the war heated up back in 2006. What are you seeing there now?

Mr. LALANI: You're quite right. We have been there right from the beginning, which maybe a lot of your listeners don't know. But we went in with you in 2001, when the air operations started, and we've been in Kandahar for the last period. And it is probably some of the toughest real estate in the country to be holding, and that's reflected in our casualty levels.

But it's also because we have been very active in trying to stabilize and secure Kandahar since we've been there.

MONTAGNE: When Canada agreed just recently to extend its mission until 2011, one of its main demands was that another NATO country had to send in at least 1,000 troops to help out. In the end it turns out those troops will be U.S. Marines coming into Kandahar. Are the Canadian troops overwhelmed?

Mr. LALANI: Absolutely not. We had an independent commission to look at what was working and what wasn't working in terms of the mission in Afghanistan. And one of the things they concluded was that in Kandahar, being so crucial to the mission, we needed more troops to do the job right.

MONTAGNE: But getting down to it, how much progress has been made in fighting the Taliban down in Kandahar?

Mr. LALANI: There's a lot of progress. Remember this is a country that for a whole generation, for 30 years, has had some kind of war or civil war, so progress sometimes means a gravel road. In Kandahar we're building new schools, training and hiring new teachers.

So while life for the foreigners entails different security precautions, we shouldn't forget that life for Afghans is returning to normal.

MONTAGNE: Although this gets us to the question of protest. In Canada, much of the protest about sending troops to Afghanistan stems from the fact that a lot of Canadians thought that when those troops went into Afghanistan they were going to reconstruct the country. It was a sort of a peace mission and then they ended up fighting. How much has the mission changed to allow your troops to actually concentrate on reconstruction?

Mr. LALANI: We're concentrating more and more. I've been ambassador there for a year now, and in the year that I've been there we have done more development in Kandahar this year than we did last year. But you're also quite right to point out that this is a leadership in a way that Canada hasn't experienced since the Korean War. And that kind of leadership, I think, has taken some adjustment for Canadians.

But Canadians, frankly, you know, have not really been protesting against the war. There's been a lot of political debate about the direction of the mission.

MONTAGNE: Well, I take your point. It's not so much protest on the streets but there certainly is a constant drum roll in Canada of criticism about Afghanistan in a way that we don't see that here. More like what we see here about Iraq.

Mr. LALANI: Exactly. And I think partly it's because our Afghanistan mission is our number one foreign policy priority. What you're seeing is natural because we have never done anything this big, and frankly with this kind of loss of life. So Canadians, I think, are adjusting due to the fact that Americans are used to, which is that leadership isn't always easy.

MONTAGNE: Arif Lalani is Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan, in Washington, D.C. this week. Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. LALANI: My pleasure. Thank you.

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