* Afghan situation hard, not improving - Canada commander
* Afghanistan now has full attention of United States
* Army not in as critical as state as in early 2009
By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA, Oct 21 (Reuters) - The situation in Afghanistan is very hard and is not getting better, although the increasing involvement of the United States means there is some cause for hope, the commander of Canada’s land forces said on Wednesday.
Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie also told Reuters that fresh investment in armored vehicles, as well as healthier recruitment levels, mean the army is not in as bad shape as it was earlier in the year.
Canada has 2,700 troops in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, the heartland of the Taliban, on a mission that is due to end in 2011. So far 131 Canadian soldiers have died.
"Afghanistan is hard. Everything is really hard and things are not getting any easier," Leslie said during a 35-minute interview at his office at defense headquarters in Ottawa.
"It could be a lot worse ... I still think there’s cause for hope. Afghanistan and the issue of Afghanistan has now seized the attention of the most powerful people in the world because of the dangers of things not going as well as one might hope."
U.S. President Barack Obama is deciding whether to boost troop levels in Afghanistan. His top military commander in Afghanistan is asking for 40,000 or more reinforcements.
Obama’s focus on Afghanistan follows several years when Washington was more interested in Iraq, which U.S. troops invaded in 2003.
"It (Afghanistan) is now page one. For quite a while Afghanistan was a very firm page two or three, not necessarily in Canada, but in other capitals," Leslie said.
Last week the commander of Canadian forces in Kandahar said Afghanistan was in "a serious, desperate situation".
Leslie said that for NATO to succeed in Afghanistan, it must build the Afghan national army and police into effective forces that Afghans can trust.
"We could use triple the number across the entirety of the nation (compared) to what they have now," he said, adding that it would take two years for the army and police forces to reach acceptable levels of professionalism.
"I’ve followed behind Afghan battalions which were nothing less than superb. On the other hand, I’ve followed behind other Afghan battalions which have a long way to go."
One solution might be to partially train and equip tribal forces to help maintain security, he said.
"You hold them accountable for low-level security in their respective districts ... There is a risk, because the flip side is that you are in danger of introducing more weapons into an area that is already awash with them," he said.
Leslie made headlines in the first few months of this year by saying the army and its equipment were worn out and would need 12 to 18 months to recover once the Afghan mission ended in 2011. This is no longer the case, he said.
In June, Ottawa announced it would spend C$5.2 billion ($5 billion) on new armored vehicles. The recession has increased the flow of recruits.
"I have orders in writing that we’re coming out (of Afghanistan) in 2011. But if the government asked us to go somewhere else, pick a country, any country ... I’m no longer in a position of being forced to recommend that, oops, things are pretty grim," Leslie said.
($1=$1.04 Canadian) (Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway)