RELATED STORY:Added troops expected to aid Kandahar fight

With a population estimated at around 800,000, Kandahar is Afghanistan’s second-largest city and a critical component of U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy that focuses on protecting Afghan civilians, rather than killing Taliban fighters. The city is also the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban, and served as the movement’s de-facto capital until it was ousted from power during the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Canada, with about 2,800 troops, has the security lead for Kandahar province, but the number of U.S. forces is growing. There are currently about 1,200 U.S. troops already serving under Canadian command in the province, including the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, and a company of U.S. military police in the city. Three additional U.S. Stryker battalions are also posted in Kandahar province, but they are under a separate American command.

According to a report last week by McClatchy Newspapers, a division headquarters element, totaling about 7,000 soldiers, will be sent to Kandahar Airfield to direct U.S. forces in the south. A second Marine expeditionary brigade is expected to be sent to Helmand province.

Together, Kandahar and the Helmand River valley, where a 10,000-strong Marine brigade is already operating, are home to about 80 percent of the population in southern Afghanistan, and constitute the key strategic focus points in the region for McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy.

Canadian Brig. Gen. Daniel Menard, the new commander of Task Force Kandahar, told reporters Nov. 19 that he expects more U.S. troops to be added to his command. Menard said he anticipates as many as “four units” will be added to the force, but declined to be more specific on how many troops that actually meant.

Conventional U.S. combat forces typically do not deploy in anything less than a battalion-size element, around 750 to 800 troops. So, according to Menard’s projection, that means up to 3,200 more U.S. troops would be added to the Canadian command, an unusual arrangement since U.S. troops would actually outnumber Canadian forces in the expanded task force.

Canada is the only U.S. ally in Afghanistan that has U.S. forces serving under its command. But Canada has announced that it is pulling its combat forces from Afghanistan in 2011, and the move to put more U.S. troops under Canadian command could be an effort by U.S. officials to keep a key U.S. ally involved in the war.

U.S. Army Col. Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, said that any discussion of troop increases for Afghanistan was “speculative” until the president’s announcement. “However,” he acknowledged, “Kandahar remains a high priority for ISAF due to its large population center and historical ties to the insurgency.”

There are currently about 68,000 U.S. troops and 42,000 soldiers from 42 other nations in Afghanistan.

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