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War in Afghanistan 2009 Week One

Standing on the ridge of a new year is an opportunity to look both back to where you've been and forward to where you're headed.

Looking back at 2008 we see a hard year pass into history and what may be a harder year looming. But we also see the unmistakeable outlines of success on the horizon.

First, let's bid the old year a glad farewell. The sacrifices have been heavy. The news media spewed unrelenting gloom, yet here's what hasn't been widely reported:

* Fewer people were killed in the War in Afghanistan than the year before.
* The United Nations says fewer civilians were killed than the year before.
* Fewer Afghan police were killed than the year before.
* There were fewer suicide bombings
* More Taliban fighters were killed than in 2007 (5000-plus)
* There was a 20 percent reduction in the amount of land used for growing poppies.

But the cost wasn't cheap:

* More NATO and U.S. soldiers were killed in combat than in 2007
* U.S. combat deaths totalled 133 compared to 83 the year before.
* Canada lost 27 soldiers in combat, the same as in 2007.

Associated Press recorded the deaths of 6,340 people in Afghanistan in 2008 from insurgency-related violence, almost 200 less than the previous year.

The United Nations counted 1377 civilian dead by mid-December. Their total for 2007 was more than 1500.

There were 123 suicide bomb attacks, compared to 137 in '07 The suicide attacks, though fewer were more deadly. They killed 411 civilians and wounded 860, compared to 300 civilians killed and around 700 wounded in '07.

The bloodiest attack in 2008 was at a dogfighting gathering in Kandahar province where almost 100 people were killed and an equal number injured.

About 25 foreign troops were killed and 60 wounded by suiciders in 2008, about 20 more in total than the previous year.

The vast majority of civilians are being killed by indiscriminate Taliban attacks. The number of roadside bombs doubled in 2008 to 2000 causing many deaths among foreign troops, but many more from the local civilian population.

The number of Canadian war dead was a great disappointment. A full third of the 27 died in December, victims of roadside bombs. This is an outrageous failure of leadership in the field. Reported excuses that the Canadians hit a streak of bad luck are insulting.

We've said it before and it has to be said again, bad officers need to be cashiered quickly. Poor leadership like that demonstrated in December would have never been acceptable in previous wars.

Strategypage reports that last year 138 NATO troops were killed in Afghanistan, a rate of 3.45 per thousand troops. But, their analysis shows, barely "a third of the NATO force (mainly British Dutch and Canadian) do most of the fighting. This force suffers a higher combat death rate than U.S. troops. The British death rate was 6 per thousand, the Canadian rate was 11."

We can only pray that the coming year will show better results by the generals in command of Canadian troops. The Canadians have received delivery of new UAV's; maybe the officers can tear themselves away from showing off the UAV's to visiting politicians and figure out ways to use them to reduce the terrible toll from roadside bombs.

That said, what do we see ahead?

Obviously the biggest change on the horizon is at least 20,000 more U.S. troops. The American military is the most professional, most aggressive and most lethal in the world. They're coming to bolster NATO forces in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, which is welcome news for the British, Dutch and Canadians in the fighting zone.

The British in Helmand are finally getting much-awaited helicopters. They've been depending on just eight Chinooks to serve 8,000 troops. This year they'll add up to eight Merlin helicopters, a dozen refurbished light Lynx and eight heavy Chinook choppers.

Brit commanders expect to be able to use the new equipment to respond quickly to intelligence on "high-value targets". It will also mean fewer movements by road--and fewer casualties to the Taliban's roadside bombs.

Two U.S. brigade combat teams moving into Helmand are bringing their own air resources to use in preventing the flow of Taliban fighters and weapons from across the Pakistan border. The result should be some needed breathing room for NATO forces in the centre of Helmand, particularly around the Kajaki dam where the project that could turn the war around is underway.

This summer British forces brought a third turbine to the dam. Engineers will be working all this year to get it hooked up. The hope is that power will be flowing from the dam sometime in 2010, eventually bringing electricity to another 2 million Afghanis.

Once that's accomplished it will be the tipping point of the war, in our opinion.

Now that's something to look for.