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Members of the Canadian Forces wear poppies as they march during Remembrance Day ceremonies at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Nov. 11, 2010. (Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Members of the Canadian Forces wear poppies as they march during Remembrance Day ceremonies at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Nov. 11, 2010. (Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Harper's turnaround: PM says he felt he had to extend Afghan mission Add to ...

Stephen Harper said he didn't really want to do it, but felt compelled to bend: Canada will keep soldiers in Afghanistan in a training role after next July, extending a military mission he wanted to end completely.

It was a moment of turnaround for the Prime Minister, who had repeatedly asserted all Canadian soldiers except a handful of embassy guards would quit Afghanistan next year, but faced pressure from allies to do more.

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He appeared to swallow as a reporter noted he'd been unequivocal on complete withdrawal for more than a year, nodding quietly throughout the question, and then making a rare admission that he struggled with the options, and remains ambivalent about the choice.

"Look, I'm not going to kid you," he said in South Korea, where he is attending a G20 summit. "Down deep, my preference would be, would have been, to see a complete end to the military mission.

"But as we approach that date, the facts on the ground convince me that the Afghan military needs further training. ... I think if we can continue a smaller mission that involves just training, I think frankly that presents minimal risks to Canada but it helps us ensure that the gains we've made are continued. ... So I do this with some reluctance but I think it is the best decision when one looks at the options."

It wasn't, according to some who tried to persuade the Canadian government to approve a new training mission, just a matter of swallowing his past pledges that all troops would be withdrawn.

Allies like the United States and Britain viewed Mr. Harper as the most reluctant in a cabinet that included many ministers who were more willing - and the decision hung in the balance because it rested with a Prime Minister who had grown cool on the Afghanistan mission and frustrated with the country's mercurial President, Hamid Karzai.

They lobbied with arguments that allies should stick together longer, and with arguments that Mr. Harper echoed as many minds turned to the toll of war on Remembrance Day: that after years of combat sacrifice, Canada shouldn't walk away from a request to stay and train the Afghan troops who will take over the battle.

However, Mr. Harper didn't say how big a commitment he will approve, how many Canadian soldiers will serve as trainers after next July, or the nature of the training. But he suggested the new mission will run until 2014.

While the United States has called for Canadian training to include in-field mentoring of Afghan troops or police that would expose the trainers to the risk of firefights, Mr. Harper insisted that there will be no involvement in combat after next July.

"I know there are others in NATO who would like us to continue the combat mission. I've been very clear. That's not an option Canada will consider," Mr. Harper said.

A government official said this week that Mr. Harper was considering a request to send about 750 trainers and 200 support troops - but the Prime Minister did not say whether he approved those numbers. Canada has about 2,900 troops in Afghanistan, with most in combat or combat-support roles in Kandahar province.

At home, where Liberals have since June called for the government to consider a post-2011 training mission, opposition politicians were unimpressed by Mr. Harper's expressed reluctance.

Months after the Liberals called for a training mission, Mr. Harper's office ruled it out. On Aug. 24, after the leak of a government draft outlining possible post-2011 civilian roles in Afghanistan, the PMO e-mailed reporters to stress, "We just want to be absolutely clear that Canada's military mission in Afghanistan ends in 2011."

On Thursday, the Liberals called for details of the new mission, and the NDP asked how, after so recently insisting no troops would stay, the Prime Minister was suddenly converted under pressure from NATO allies, notably the United States.

"I feel like these decisions aren't being made in Canada," NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said.

Mr. Dewar argued that a decision on sending troops to a war zone, even for training, should require a vote in Parliament. The Liberals said they do not necessarily agree with that.

"That's a discussion that needs to be had with all the parties after the government tells us exactly what it's doing. But in principle, I don't think it's absolutely necessary," said Bob Rae, Liberal foreign affairs critic.

About 325 Canadian Forces troops are currently in training missions in Afghanistan, including about 125 doing classroom instruction in secure staff colleges and training bases; NATO is calling for about 750 more. But the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, said on Wednesday he would like to see Canada continue the kind of "outside-the-wire" in-field mentoring that about 200 Canadians are doing now.

Unlike classroom training at bases and schools, mentoring means the risk of fire, and some fear it could slide toward involvement in combat. The Liberal vice-chair of the Commons committee on Afghanistan, Bryon Wilfert, said he'd be against outside-the-wire mentoring because Canadians would not support a post-2011 mission that would put their soldiers "in harm's way."

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