After 2011, Canada may mentor Afghan police
Canada's role in Afghanistan beyond next year's combat deadline is beginning to come into focus, with Defence Minister Peter MacKay hinting Saturday that a police training force will stay in the country after Canadian troops leave.
Ottawa has been reluctant to discuss its plans in Afghanistan beyond the legislated end date, but it appears that mounting international pressure is forcing the government to put at least some of its cards on the table.
During a recent visit to Ottawa, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in blunt diplomatic terms that Canada should maintain its fighting force in Afghanistan.
However, Ottawa has faced increasing resistance domestically to any extension of the 2011 date as combat casualties have risen to more than 140.
Still, Canadian police mentorship in Afghanistan could represent a tenable compromise, as Afghan police forces are in need of guidance from abroad.
"What we will do beyond that point in the area of training, will predominantly be in the area of policing. And that is very much a key component part of security for Afghanistan," MacKay said, speaking from Afghanistan.
For years, the country's police force has been wracked by corruption and incompetence. Brutal policing practices and equipment shortages have also undermined security in the country.
The Canadian Press reported Saturday that the goal is to have 134,000 trained officers in Afghanistan by October 2011. The current number is about 98,000.
Currently, there are 48 Canadian civilian police and 40 military officers mentoring forces in Afghanistan, but that number could grow after Canadian troops leave next year.
Washington has been consistent in asking for more time from Canada, even if it means operating in less volatile environs and training the Afghan army.
However, such a role could still put Canadian troops in harm's way, which is a politically unpalatable position for the Conservatives.
On Saturday, MacKay was careful not to talk specifically about mounting U.S. pressure to stay in the fight. Instead, he spoke of the goodwill that Canada has earned with its international partners.
"But they also very much understand that in Canada we have a parliamentary motion that is unequivocal. It is very clear the military mission will end in 2011," he said.
The motion was passed in Parliament in March 2008, but it only specified that Canada cease combat and pull out of the volatile Kandahar region.
However, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said that every soldier would also leave the country.