Bowing to intense pressure from the United States and other allies, the Harper government now acknowledges that hundreds of Canadian troops could remain in Afghanistan years after its long and bloody combat mission officially ends in 2011.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Ottawa is looking at the possibility of keeping a significant number of soldiers "behind the wire" in the war-torn country to help train the Afghan army and local police.
"Knowing that the mission in Afghanistan has work that is yet to be done, we are now considering this," Mr. MacKay told reporters in Halifax Sunday at the conclusion of an international security conference.
"Training is an option and it's something we're very good at, quite frankly."
The Harper government's shifting Afghan position moves it much closer to the opposition Liberals, who have urged the Harper government to commit to training and other non-combat roles as the 2011 pullout deadline nears.
Ottawa has repeatedly insisted that Afghanistan would become a purely civilian operation after the pullout of combat troops next year. In January, for example, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada's role there would become "strictly civilian" after 2011.
That stand now appears to be wavering as Washington and other allies step up appeals for Canada to stay beyond 2011 in advance of a NATO summit in Lisbon later this month.
Canada has 3,000 troops in the country now. And roughly 400 of those are already involved in training of some kind.
Bob Rae, the Liberal's foreign affairs critic, said the Harper government's position remains far too vague, with no details on timing and numbers.
"It's important for the government to tell what exactly it has in mind," Mr. Rae told CTV. "It's important for Canadians to know."
The move isn't likely to please many Canadians, who wanted troops out of the war completely.
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar accused Mr. Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff of a "backroom deal" to extend the military mission in Afghanistan. "The NDP is clear: End the military mission as was promised." Mr. Dewar said.
The expectation is that most if not all of Canada's team of trainers will stay in Afghanistan, although they would likely move to the capital Kabul, where NATO operates a training centre, according to Mr. Rae. Right now, most of the training Canada does is in the southern province of Kandahar, working alongside Afghan army soldiers. And that kind of "hands-on" activity will end next year, a Canadian government official insisted.
"This is out of Kandahar, behind the wire," Mr. MacKay told reporters of the possibility of providing trainers beyond 2011. "That's the type of training that's been contemplated."
A senior Harper government official insisted that Canadians would not be involved in any combat after next year. "Canada has done it's fair share" during its eight years in Afghanistan, and the troops will leave Kandahar as scheduled, the official said.
"The government is firm on that: the combat mission ends in 2011," said the official, who requested anonymity. He called a Canadian Press report that the trainers would remain until 2014 as "speculative."
Instead, the official confirmed Canada is weighing several options for 2012 and beyond in Afghanistan, including development aid, diplomacy and military training.
Experts said Mr. MacKay's statements Sunday represent the federal government's first public indication they're considering extending Canada's military presence in Afghanistan since U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton broached the issue during a visit earlier this year.
It's an indication Ottawa is bowing to pressure "in every way, shape and form" from the U.S. and other NATO allies - and that the ruling Conservative party has the opposition Liberals on board, said David Bercuson, historian and director of the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies.
"The problem is that, up to now, the government has refused to even breathe a word about it," he said, adding that a coming NATO meeting in Lisbon probably served as an impetus to at least suggest a continued commitment.
"The government is going to have an opportunity to say, 'Okay, we've changed our minds: We're going to stay. But we're going to change roles and we're going to leave Kandahar.' … What you have now is an obvious coming together of the Conservatives and the Liberals in this regard."
While the Prime Minister's Office declined to say Sunday just what Canada's post-2011 military commitment might look like, Mr. Bercuson said the U.S. had requested "a battalion's worth" - about 600 to 700 troops - to be based near Kabul, taking part in training Afghan national security forces.
It's not clear how much that altered mandate would change the look and feel of Canada's Afghan presence: Even if the role of Canadian troops is a strictly training-based one, they would likely still accompany Afghan troops on patrol.
"Real training is not just showing them which end of the gun the bullet comes out of," said Mr. Bercuson. "There's only one way you can demonstrate, and that's do it."
This weekend - when hundreds of policy-makers, military officials, academics and think-tank members gathered in Halifax - the situation in Afghanistan, divisions in NATO and Canada's looming exit was on many lips.
Keeping troops there, even in a very limited role, would clearly please the United States.
At the conference, a couple of influential U.S. Republican senators - former presidential candidate John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina - added their voices to those calling on Canada to stay in Afghanistan, in some capacity.
"We respect the Canadian government's domestic as well as foreign policy needs, but we would really, really appreciate if the Canadian government and people could see their way clear to continue a presence at least in the training area," the Arizona Senator said on CTV's Question Period. "As you know, that's a vital part of any success of counterinsurgency strategy."
Since 2002, 152 members of the Canadian Forces have been killed serving in the Afghanistan mission. Hundreds more have been injured.
With a report from Anna Mehler PapernyReport Typo/Error
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