Up to 1,000 Canadian troops might stay in Afghanistan past 2011 to train locals officials say, but that doesn't mean they won't be in combat.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced at a conference in Halifax Sunday that the government is thinking about having its troops stay in Afghanistan beyond 2011.
"We've been crystal clear in saying that the combat mission will end July ," MacKay said, according to a transcript of his remarks. But Canada is also training Afghan police and military officers to help establish the Afghanistan government.
The government is now reconsidering its post-2011 role, MacKay said, one that will likely focus on training. "This is out of Kandahar, behind the wire," he said, meaning in a non-combat role. Senior government sources cited by the CBC suggest this could involve up to 750 soldiers and 200 support staff stationed in Kabul for up to three years.
Canada is set to meet its NATO allies in Lisbon, Portugal later this month to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.
Canada has been under great pressure from its NATO allies to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2011, said Edmonton-St. Albert member of Parliament Brent Rathgeber. This is still just a proposal, he emphasized, and it would have to be voted on by Parliament before it could be implemented.
"There's almost no support amongst civilian constituents for continuing a combat mission," Rathgeber said, although military members have told him they favour an extension. He said he'd support this proposal if it came to a vote, saying it was a good compromise between those calling for a continued presence and those wanting the troops out now.
Training means combat, says expert
This is an about-face for Canada, said Walter Dorn, professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada in Ontario, one that likely reflects pressure from NATO. Both the Liberals and Conservatives previously supported a motion to end Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan by next July.
It's unrealistic to say that our troops won't be in combat if they switch to training, Dorn said. "By necessity, training cannot be just done in the classroom."
Mentoring requires teachers to take students into the field, often in combat situations. Training is less dangerous than what our soldiers are doing now, but "to say there's no danger is unrealistic."
Troops could do plenty of training without ever leaving their base, Rathgeber said, although he admitted that base could conceivably come under attack. "There will be no combat role for Canada past July of next year."
Both the Liberals and Conservatives have hinted for months that our troops might need to stay in Afghanistan past 2011, Dorn said, so it's unlikely they'll lose support from each other. They could lose it to the NDP and Bloc, however, both of which want the troops back home.
Canada might be criticized for pulling out, Rathgeber said, but the fact is that by next July Canada will have spent almost as much time in Afghanistan as it did in Europe during both World Wars. "I don't think anyone can fairly criticize the Canadian effort."
Canada owes it to its allies to make its position clear soon, Dorn said. "Our pullout starts in a matter of months," he said. "If we're going to stay in Afghanistan, we're going to need to be able to make some concrete plans soon."