KHADAN, Afghanistan — By the crack of dawn, the Royal Canadian Dragoons’ armor was in position, fanned out across a dusty vineyard for Operation Tazi to secure a key land route into Kandahar from the Taliban.

It was a mission the Canadians have done countless times before in other Afghan places. But, this time, they weren’t officially running the show. The local police chief was, and he wasn’t there yet.

“You have to work on Afghanistan time,” Master Cpl. Jason Dunnett, 27, of Oshawa, Ontario, said after the soldiers were issued their orders and briefed on what to expect. “We’ll go when they are ready.”

For Canada, Afghanistan has been a long slog.

Fighting its bloodiest conflict since the Korean War, Canada has paid a heavy price – 139 Canadian troops have died. With about 2,800 soldiers in the country, the third-largest contingent in the U.S.-led coalition, the Canadians have taken more casualties, proportionately, than any other.

But by the end of next year, they will be gone.

After four years of often-intense combat since moving down to Kandahar, the spiritual center of the Taliban, Canadian military planners are now fine-tuning their exit strategy, bringing the Afghans in as closely as possible to ensure that their hard-fought progress doesn’t evaporate after they leave.

“We are killing insurgents with our right hand, and killing the insurgency with our left,” said Capt. Jade Watson, a planning officer for the Canadian Battle Group in Kandahar. “We can offer a future. The insurgents can only offer a past.”

Even as new U.S. troops are flowing in to begin their surge, however, the Canadians have learned that progress can vanish as easily as footprints in the sand.

Their departure will be deeply felt. The Afghan police and army, who will be called upon to fill the gap, are understaffed and poorly trained. Their ranks are riddled with corruption, and they are often not respected or trusted by the Afghan people.

Out in the field, the shift toward winning hearts and minds – and giving local forces as big a role as possible – is striking, but problematic.

About three-quarters of the way through the Khadan compound search, the police chief, Shir Shah, said he had seen enough. A village woman had died, a grave was being dug, and he didn’t want to disrupt village life any further.

So the Canadians pulled back.

No weapons caches, explosives or suspected insurgents were found. No doors were kicked in, and the primary intelligence gleaned was about what the villagers needed – well pumps, and perhaps a school.

Read the rest of the AP story here.

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