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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Canada to send tanks, extra troops to Afghanistan

Canada is sending around 200 extra troops as well as a squadron of heavy Leopard tanks to boost its 2,300-strong mission in Afghanistan, which has clashed heavily with Taliban forces in recent weeks, the Defense Department said on Friday.

Four tanks will be sent as soon as possible and as many as 15 could eventually be deployed, officials said. Canadian tanks have not been used in combat since the 1950-53 Korean War.

The announcement came shortly after senior Canadian officials acknowledged there were "serious and complex challenges to overcome" in the war-torn country.

In the last three months alone, 16 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan, prompting ever-louder calls for the troops to be brought back home. Military leaders said they are responding to an increasingly aggressive enemy now using heavier weapons.

"Conditions have changed. We saw more of the Taliban than was predicted over the past six to 12 months," said Rick Hillier, Canada's chief of defense staff.

"We saw a change in their tactics where they really moved from a guerrilla warfare-type style, a counter-insurgency, to some conventional techniques, where they dug in."

Hillier said the extra forces would help protect reconstruction teams working in southern Afghanistan.

"Infrastructure projects, particularly in the short term, are the overwhelming requirement and therefore we've got to put much more emphasis on it," he told reporters.

Afghans need to see "there is a bright light at the end of this tunnel, even though the end of that tunnel might be a long way a way," he added.

The extra forces comprise an infantry company from French-speaking Quebec -- where opposition to the Canadian mission is at its most vocal -- as well as military engineers and a unit designed to combat Taliban forces using mortars.

The government says Canada is doing more than its fair share in Afghanistan and wants other NATO nations to commit additional forces.

"There are serious and complex challenges to overcome before we can achieve our objectives in Afghanistan ... (they) are extremely difficult to achieve in insecure environments," an official told reporters earlier in the day.

"The success of this integrated approach remains contingent on a robust and sustained international presence."

Another official added: "From our perspective, clearly it would be more useful to have more troops over there... We recognize that the situation in Afghanistan is dynamic, extremely dynamic."

The Conservative government raised eyebrows this month when Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor said the Taliban could not be eliminated militarily.

"It is not about destroying the Taliban militarily from our perspective. It is about defeating an insurgency, and I have no expectation of us declaring explicitly (a) military victory in this in the days, weeks or months ahead," the second official said.

"That's not how you win an insurgency. It's about developing effective Afghan national police forces and an Afghan national army."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is due to visit Canada next week and will address Parliament next Friday.

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