Preparations have begun for the withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan, as the 2011 deadline for that withdrawal draws closer.
A government official confirmed media reports that General Walter Natynczyk, the Chief of the Defence Staff, has ordered preparations to get under way that would involve the return of the thousands of troops and their equipment from the troubled country.
"A Chief of Defence Staff directive has been issued to begin planning preparations for the 2011 end of combat mission," the official told The Globe and Mail Friday.
Parliament has mandated that the military component of the mission end in 2011, and the Conservative government has promised to honour that mandate.
However, many observers expected that U.S. President Barack Obama would ask Prime Minister Stephen Harper to keep troops in the field, as the Americans ramp up their efforts to contain the Taliban in Afghanistan.
At the least, it is expected some Canadian troops may be needed to protect civilian reconstruction efforts.
There are 2,800 Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, based primarily in Kandahar province, supported by billions of dollars in weaponry and other equipment.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay has refused to rule out the possibility of keeping support troops in the country after the end of the 2011 deadline. But these logistical preparations confirm that the government is indeed determined to end any substantive combat role by the end of the year after next.
Those preparations will be complex. While Canada's "lift" capacity has improved in recent years, it will still probably be necessary to rent airplanes to ferry the troops and equipment back to Canada.
The withdrawal will represent an ambiguous conclusion, at best, to a major military effort that made some progress in security civilian authority in the southern part of the country, without dislodging the Islamist militants who are determined to force out allied forces and retake control.