The Conservative government will announce on Tuesday that it will send up to 950 troops to Afghanistan next year for a post-2011 training mission, government sources say.
A government official said that all of the soldiers, including trainers and others sent in support roles, will be posted outside of Kandahar province, the tough, war-scarred area in Afghanistan's south where most Canadian troops are now concentrated.
However, not all will be in the relatively safe capital of Kabul, as some will be posted in other Afghan cities, the source said, without giving the specific locations. NATO has asked allies for army and police trainers in several locations across Afghanistan, including some where Taliban insurgents are more active than in Kabul, such as Mehtar Lam and Jalalabad, an eastern city where six insurgents were killed on Saturday when they tried to attack a coalition base.
Most of Canada's training mission will be devoted to training soldiers in the Afghan National Army, but none of the troops will be posted in mentoring operations that would require them to accompany Afghan army personnel on combat operations, the sources said. A smaller portion of the Canadian training contingent will work with Afghan police.
Government sources insisted that the training mission will stay within two key restrictions set by Parliament when it voted two years ago to withdraw Canadian combat forces in 2011: none of the soldiers in the post-2011 mission will be in combat, and none will be in Kandahar.
NATO generals said in October that about 900 additional trainers are needed as the Afghanistan National Security Forces - the army and police - increase their numbers to 350,000 in 2013 from about 265,000 now.
The Canadian mission won't fill the entire gap, as about a quarter of the 950 troops to be sent will play support roles. The government has approved a mission of that number, but how many are actually deployed next year will depend on NATO's needs, a source said.
The government's post-2011 plans for Afghanistan, including details of the training mission as well as a development strategy, are to be announced at a news conference on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is preparing to travel to Lisbon for a summit of NATO leaders that opens on Friday, at which leaders are expected to endorse a strategy to hand over the "lead role" in security to Afghan forces in 2014.
But in Ottawa, the post-2011 training mission is still likely to spark controversy.
Although the Liberals have called since June for the government to consider a training mission, the NDP and Bloc Québécois have accused the government of breaking a pledge to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan. They have demanded a vote in Parliament - and signalled they do not believe that the sizable contingent of troops will be able to avoid combat completely.
"We think it's impossible that this will not be done in military operations," Bloc MP Pierre Paquette said. "For these soldiers, there will necessarily be, let's say, a risk that they will find themselves in combat zones. So it's unacceptable."
The Liberals said the government is improvising a plan under pressure from NATO allies, and spent much of the Monday demanding details, and scoffing at the government's insistence it was still reviewing the plan.
"How can the government explain this silence, how can it explain its improvisation, how can it explain its secrecy, how can it explain its lack of transparency with the Canadian people?" Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff asked in the Commons. But government officials insist they have communicated the key details of the training mission, including the numbers of troops, to the Liberals.
The NATO summit is intended as a signal to insurgents in Afghanistan that NATO forces will not withdraw from the country next year, despite previous U.S. and British statements that they will start to reduce their troop contingents then.
"From Lisbon on, we will be on a transition strategy with a target date of the end of 2014 for Afghanistan taking over responsibility for leading the security," Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in Islamabad.
The U.S. Obama Administration and Britain have pressed both Canada and the Netherlands to replace departing combat troops with trainers. Dutch combat troops left in August, and Canadian combat forces are scheduled to leave Kandahar next July.