KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Canada has handed over about half of its battle space in southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar province to newly arrived U.S. soldiers, allowing Canadian forces to concentrate on counterinsurgency and reconstruction efforts in the provincial capital, according to a senior officer.
The move also effectively doubles the size of NATO-led combat forces within Kandahar province, birthplace of the Taliban movement, from two to four battalions, although they will operate under separate U.S. and Canadian commands.
The transfer of responsibility to soldiers of the U.S. 5th Stryker Brigade includes Spin Boldak district — site of an important border crossing with Pakistan — and the districts of Arghandab, Shah Wali Kot, and Kakrez, north of the city of Kandahar, said Lt. Col. Mike Patrick, chief of operations for Canada-led Task Force Kandahar.
The soldiers are among the 21,000 additional American forces that President Barack Obama ordered to Afghanistan earlier this year to combat the burgeoning Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan.
The deployment puts two battalions from the Fort Lewis, Wash.-based brigade into areas that were previously held by much smaller Canadian forces.
"What the American forces represent is the ability to cover off on the population at large inside Kandahar province," said Patrick. "They’ve filled in some places where we weren’t."
Other battalions with the 5th Stryker Brigade are deploying into neighboring Zabul province, said Col. Harry Tunnell IV, the brigade commander.
With the deployment into Zabul province, the 5th Stryker Brigade will essentially close a vital gap between U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktika province and Kandahar province in the south. Until now, Zabul province has been only lightly garrisoned by international troops.
The 5th Stryker Brigade is equipped with the Army’s latest generation of battlefield sensor technologies and networked communications systems, which will allow the U.S. forces to "operate over large distances with full situational awareness," Patrick said.
"So, they’re almost tailor-made to take that ground that we weren’t on in force, and that we were servicing on a nonregular basis," he said. "That’s effectively allowed us to concentrate … inside of an [area of operations] wherein we’ve achieved a better ratio of security versus the population."
"They can cover a vast amount of territory with the equipment they bring to the table," he said.
The area that the Canadian-led task force will now focus on includes the city of Kandahar plus the districts of Maiwand, Ghorak, Zhari, Panjwayi, Dand and Daman, located to the west and south of the provincial capital. These areas include about 80 percent of the province’s population, Patrick said.
An estimated 914,000 people live in Kandahar province, but only about 324,000 live within the city itself, according to figures from the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. About 590,000 people live in rural districts, the program estimates.
Most of these districts are clustered around the provincial capital.
From 2005 until last year, Canadian soldiers held Kandahar largely on their own. But with only 2,800 soldiers in its task force — and with the actual size of the fighting force much smaller than that — commanders were faced with tough choices on where to deploy their troops.
"Fully 10 of the districts (out of 17 total) were not covered by us in force," said Patrick. "We could not provide that persistent force that was necessary."
The districts where the Stryker battalions will operate are not as heavily populated, but they cover the majority of the province, and they include unguarded corridors that insurgents are presumed to use for the transport of fighters, weapons and drugs.
"We need to squelch the insurgency with coverage," Patrick said. "That’s what it comes down to."
With its soldiers engaged in some of the heaviest fighting in southern Afghanistan, Canada threatened to pull its forces out of Afghanistan unless NATO allies contributed more troops.
Last summer, U.S. soldiers with the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment from Fort Hood, Texas, were slated to deploy to eastern Afghanistan, but were sent instead to Maiwand district in western Kandahar province, where they came under Canadian command.
In June, those soldiers were replaced by the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, also from Fort Hood. Those troops will remain part of the Canadian task force, Patrick said.
But even as U.S. and Canadian forces are working more closely together in Afghanistan than ever before, support for the war remains uneven with Canadian voters, and Canada’s government has committed to pulling its troops from Kandahar province in 2011.