Cannon says 'risk factor' remains for troops
The Canadian government announced Tuesday that up to 950 Canadian Forces members will stay in Afghanistan until 2014 in a non-combat role, while offering more details on the new mission.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the House of Commons that the training mission does not authorize combat.
"Our soldiers will be training Afghan personnel on bases or in classrooms, we are very clear on that," Harper said.
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon announced at a news conference "up to 950 military trainers and support personnel" will remain in Afghanistan until March 2014.
Cannon said the "non-combat" troops will be based in the Kabul area.
However, Cannon admitted that soldiers would still be in danger, despite the relative security in Kabul compared to the current operation in Kandahar.
"I am not going to hide the fact that there is a risk factor," Cannon told CTV's Power Play. "(But) our people will not be mentoring in the field, they will be in classrooms."
Harper had been adamant that Canada's soldiers would leave after the July 2011 withdrawal update, but the government had been under intense pressure from its NATO allies to keep some presence in Afghanistan.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was pleased with Harper's decision, as it puts Canada in step with the organization 2014 withdrawal date for Afghanistan.
The government was supported by the Liberal opposition, who proposed the training mission earlier this summer.
"We think this is a tough decision, but it's the right decision as a matter of principle," Ignatieff said Tuesday.
"You can't have the Bloc (Quebecois) and the NDP coming out there and saying, 'Let's just walk away from Afghanistan and leave them a lot of fine words."
NDP Leader Jack Layton is calling for a vote to decide whether to keep troops in Afghanistan but Harper has said he won't hold the vote.
During question period Tuesday, Layton quoted former chief of defence staff Gen. Rick Hiller, who said combat is going to be involved if Canadian troops train the Afghan army and police.
"Can the prime minister tell us why he broke his promise to bring our troops home?" Layton asked.
Can combat be avoided?
Defence Minister Peter MacKay said that "the intention is that all combat will end" for the Canadian troops in Afghanistan as of July 2011.
But he said the details of how the Canadians will wind down their combat operations and transition to providing training for the Afghans are still being worked out.
"The reality is that 2011 is a full-stop date when it comes to combat," MacKay said at the news conference.
MacKay acknowledged that there are many challenges that come with training the Afghan soldiers and security forces. Many recruits are illiterate, which limits the ways in which they can be taught.
But the defence minister said Canadians, along with their other NATO allies, have already been providing training services and have made a world of difference.
"Canada, along with our international partners, has helped to train and mentor about 50,000 Afghans," said MacKay.
Bev Oda, the minister of international cooperation, said Canada will continue efforts to improve the health and education of Afghans. But it will be particularly focused on empowering and improving the lives of women.
"Canada will target women in all of its development work in Afghanistan," Oda said.
Oda said Ottawa will spend $30 million a year to improve the health of mothers and children in Afghanistan.
Cannon said the current mission in Afghanistan costs about $2 billion, but the training mission will reduce that cost to $750 million.
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar and NDP defence critic Jack Harris told reporters that even if the soldiers are put on non-combat duties, they will still be at risk because Afghanistan remains a country at war.
"This is a war zone, so no matter where you are in Afghanistan…there is a threat of being under fire," Dewar told reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday afternoon.
Steven Staples, president of the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute, likened the mission to teaching someone to swim without getting wet.
"Despite the government's assurances to the contrary, this new training mission will likely involve combat. As long as Canadian troops remain in Afghanistan, there will be pressure for Canada to lift its non-combat caveats, especially if the war worsens over the coming years," he said in a statement.
The federal government's announcement comes at the same time that a new poll suggests Canadians are split on the military's future in Afghanistan.
A Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey suggests that 48 per cent of the public wants the troops brought back when the combat mission ends next summer. Forty-two per cent want some troops to stay behind and help train their Afghan counterparts.
The Afghan mission has claimed the lives of 152 Canadian soldiers since it began in 2001.
With files from The Canadian Press