Canada is slashing aid to Afghanistan and abandoning any presence in Kandahar by withdrawing not only troops but civilian aid officials next year.
Despite the approval of a new training mission, the moves mark a turning point where Canada is significantly disengaging from Afghanistan: dramatically reducing the outlay of cash, reducing the risk to troops, and quitting the war-scarred southern province where Canada has led military and civilian efforts.
There will be a deep cut to aid for Afghanistan. International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda said Canada will provide $100-million a year in development assistance for Afghanistan over the next three years, less than half the $205-million the government reported spending last year.
And the focus will be shifted away from Kandahar. The Harper government's decision to mount a 950-strong training mission in Afghanistan when it cuts off the combat role next July was accompanied Tuesday by confirmation of a complete pullout from Kandahar. The training mission will be mostly in Kabul, and possibly other Afghan centres, but not in Kandahar - and civilian officials who manage development projects from a Provincial Reconstruction Team will also leave.
"The [civilian]people who are in Kandahar will be either reassigned to Kabul, as needed, or will be returning to Canada," Ms. Oda said.
With the civilian staff in Kandahar to leave next year, aid to the province becomes Washington's business, rather than Ottawa's. Reconstruction projects in the province will effectively be managed on the ground by U.S. officials who are already gradually taking over operations at the Kandahar PRT.
Ms. Oda insisted Canada will continue to fund its signature projects like the reconstruction of the Dhalla Dam, which will irrigate the Arghandab River valley that flows into arid Kandahar. But whereas about half of Canadian aid now goes to Kandahar, the much-reduced sums will now be spread across Afghanistan, government officials said.
Even the Dhalla Dam project will see more U.S. involvement, Ms. Oda suggested. The first phase of the dam's "rehabilitation" is on track, she said. "And we have been in discussion with our international partners, because of the work we've started, of course, they are very anxious to build their own programming around the strong base that we've started in the Arghandab valley," she said.
The removal of Canadians from the Kandahar PRT involves not just aid officials who managed things like agricultural programs but also political officials advising Afghans on rebuilding a provincial court system that has only 15 judges and corrections officers who helped rebuild Kandahar's oft-attacked Sarpoza prison.
The withdrawal of civilians comes after the government grappled with the problem of protecting them in a war zone after Canadian Forces troops leave, but some had hoped that the government would find a way to retain a civilian presence in Kandahar, perhaps under the protection of U.S. forces. The PRT is located on the outskirts of Kandahar at Camp Nathan Smith, now effectively a U.S. base that houses thousands of American troops who arrived over the summer.
"The PRT's abandoned," said NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar. "The government talks often about not abandoning the work and the gains that have been made. Well, some of those gains were around some of the civilian and aid work that was being done in the south."
In the meantime, Canadian combat forces may be withdrawn from the Kandahar battlefield sooner than the July deadline, coming back to the base at Kandahar Airfield before the Canadian Forces begins the months-long task of taking down equipment and shipping it back to Canada.
Next year, up to 950 troops will move in for a three-year training mission that Defence Minister Peter MacKay insisted will be conducted entirely in bases or "static enclosures," with no combat operations and no in-the-field mentoring that could expose the trainers to fighting.
That mission will cost Canada $500-million per year - less than half the cost of the current combat mission, Mr. MacKay said, but there will be a one-time transition cost of about $85-million to move military operations from Kandahar to Kabul.
"The type of training that we're talking about is going to a range of things from handling firearms, obviously classroom training, physical training, the type of training that we do on bases here in Canada," he said. "It will include such things as marksmanship, infantry, armour, artillery, logistics. We may do some training with respect to aircraft, depending on what equipment the Afghans have available."
NATO has said it needs 900 more trainers to meet its goal of expanding the numbers of Afghan soldiers and police from 255,000 to 305,000 in 2013. But about half of NATO's need is for specialized trainers, from pilots to radio specialists and doctors.
The NDP and Bloc Québécois blasted the training mission as an extension of the existing Canadian military mission, and said they fear that the trainers will be in places where they will be in harm's way, or eventually dragged into combat roles.
But while those parties pressed for a parliamentary vote on the training mission, the Liberals gave their support.
"They've come forward and come out with a mission for Canada between 2011 and 2014 that involves training, that involves being in Kabul, that involves getting the Afghan army ready to defend the country," said Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. "And that's a mission we can support."