Canada's top soldier says now is not the time to celebrate and honour the sacrifice of Afghan veterans because operations there continue to be "high risk."
"The mission isn't complete," Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk told The Globe Thursday morning as he defended the decision to celebrate the end of the Libya mission Thursday with an elaborate ceremony on Parliament Hill, including a flyby of 10 airplanes.
Some Afghan veterans feel snubbed. The combat mission in Afghanistan ended in July; 158 Canadians were killed and thousands were injured over 10 years of fighting the Taliban.
The NATO-led Libya mission lasted seven months and ended with the fall, capture and death of Moammar Gadhafi. There were no Canadian military casualties.
But with troops still on the ground helping train Afghan forces, General Natynczyk says the "Afghan mission is carrying on and it's high risk."
He added: "It would be tough to celebrate and at the same time be in Trenton welcoming home our fallen comrades. That is really difficult for all those families and I represent all those families."
Gen. Natynczyk noted the death of Master Corporal Byron Greff last month. The Edmonton-based soldier was killed in a suicide attack and was the first death since the combat mission ended. There are still 750 Canadian troops in Kandahar and over 900 soldiers in Kabul.
As for celebrating the end of the Libyan mission, the Chief of Defence Staff says it's entirely appropriate given this is "first time that NATO has brought a mission to a close."
Gen. Natynczyk mentioned his conversation Wednesday with Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, the Canadian who commanded the Libya mission. He will be awarded with a Meritorious Service Cross Thursday at the ceremony.
"I spoke to Charlie Bouchard ... and he was recounting how he was speaking to his NATO boss, who said 'Bring out all the old forms and all the old letters on how you close a mission.' He said 'Boss, NATO doesn't have any correspondence or documents like that because it's never happened before.'," Gen. Natynczyk recalled.
The top soldier said Thursday's celebration is "really significant." The ceremony begins just after 9:30 a.m. on Parliament Hill. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Governor-General David Johnston and Defence Minister Peter MacKay will participate along with Gen. Natynczyk.
"We enabled the mission right across the board from HMCS Charlottetown that was within three kilometres of Misrata, the first time a Canadian ship came under fire since the Korean War, our men and women in those aircraft who dropped about 10 per cent of the ordinance with precision and great discipline.
"So I think it is time to celebrate this mission and at the same time recognize we've got to enable the success of all those men and women who are still in Kandahar, they are still in Kabul," he said.
The controversy also spilled over into the Commons on Wednesday. In a scrum after Question Period, Liberal defence critic John McKay defended the decision to honour Lt.-Gen. Bouchard, arguing he had done a "great service" to NATO.
As for Afghanistan, Mr. McKay said: "It's a different mission, but certainly we do need to recognize the people that put their lives on the line. I mean, obviously, Afghanistan didn't turn out as well as say Libya did and certainly in timeframe and in result, but nevertheless, we need to continue to recognize our men and women in uniform as very able people."