Exits: No rush for the doors

Canada’s top soldier in Afghanistan tells Maclean’s he’d go back if he could
Soldiers belonging to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion Royal 22e Regiment, relax while waiting aboard a Canadian C-17 transport before heading home following a seven month combat tour in Afghanistan, on Thursday June 30, 2011. The withdrawal of Canadian troops has accelerated in advance of Parliament’s withdrawal deadline. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Murray Brewster
No rush for the doors
Murray Brewster/CP

When the time came, Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner, the last Canadian commander of Task Force Kandahar, didn’t want to leave. Milner presided over the historic withdrawal of Canada’s combat troops from Afghanistan last July, marking the end of fighting that began in deadly earnest when Canadian soldiers took responsibility for the violent southern province of Kandahar in 2006. “To be honest, I would have liked to stay on in the south a little longer assisting the Americans,” he told Maclean’s. “You hate to go because of the experience, the knowledge, the connection we established.”

Milner, who was deployed to Kandahar in the fall of 2010, said he arrived after a summer when Taliban insurgents had regrouped and “really spiked up their activities.” But a U.S. troop surge had also flooded Kandahar with American soldiers in unprecedented numbers, allowing the Canadians to concentrate their efforts more than ever before, particularly in Panjwai district. By the time of Canada’s exit, Milner could claim significant progress in the notorious Taliban hotbed: a new road he calls “a dagger in the heart of the Taliban,” 10 open schools—compared to just one when he arrived—and 600 Afghan police officers, up from 100 in less than a year.

Still, Milner doesn’t deny that the gains won at such cost—158 Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan, along with a diplomat, two aid workers and a journalist—are far from secure. “It is reversible,” he says. “It is fragile.” The Taliban have suffered punishing losses recently, but their ability to find sanctuary in Pakistan remains troubling. He points to the role Canada has taken in training the Afghan National Army as the key to ultimately ending the need for large numbers of NATO troops to prevent a Taliban rebound.

Milner, 50, is steeped in military tradition. His father, retired general Clive Milner, commanded the UN peacekeeping mission in Cyprus from 1988 to 1992. Dean had decided before he finished high school in Kingston, Ont., to follow his father’s example and join the army. He got an early taste of insurgency warfare as part of the UN force in Bosnia in 1994, leading 55 Canadian soldiers detained by Serb fighters for more than two tense weeks in an area northwest of Sarajevo. The former Yugoslavia taught him about dealing with messy factions: “I rolled that, absolutely, into Afghanistan.”

And while Canada’s combat role in Afghanistan is over, Milner’s might not be. He’s now seconded to the U.S. Army, based in Fort Hood, Texas, and says a deployment to Afghanistan in 2013 is a strong possibility.