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U.S. to press for Canada to keep troops in Afghanistan

Cpl. Steven Kuzevski, a Canadian Forces MP, trains Afghan National Police officers on the firing range.

DENE MOORE/Dene Moore/The Canadian Press

The U.S. government will ask Canada to keep as many as 500 to 600 troops in Afghanistan after this country's military deployment in Kandahar ends in 2011.

Sources inside and outside the government say the formal request is expected toward the end of this year through NATO. The troops would act as military trainers and would most likely be located in Kabul. The deployment would not involve putting Canadian troops in harm's way, but could nonetheless set off a rancorous national debate among Canadians and especially within the Liberal Party.

No specific request has been raised in meetings between Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Defence Minister Peter MacKay. But officials in the departments of State and Defence have advised their Canadian counterparts that an "ask" is coming.

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To fulfill the terms of the parliamentary resolution that Canadian Forces leave Afghanistan, any troops would have to be outside the Kandahar region, and not engaged in military operations.

Trainers stationed in Kabul would fulfill those requirements, and it is what Canadian officials are expecting.

Whether Canada complies with the request may well depend on how Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff responds to it. The Conservative government submitted its plans to deploy troops in Kandahar to Parliament, and has committed to abiding by the 2008 parliamentary resolution ordering them out next year.

The Liberals under Stéphane Dion supported that resolution. But there was dissension within the caucus then, and there would almost certainly be dissension over leaving trainers in the country.

Liberal governments first committed Canada to the Afghanistan deployment, and many Liberal MPs believe Canada has a moral obligation to work with the Americans to keep the Taliban from returning to power. Others, however, believe the deployment was a mistake and Canada should wash its hands of Afghan commitments involving troops.

The NDP and Bloc Québécois could be expected to oppose any deployment.

While a request for a small number of trainers - who would help prepare the Afghan military in taking over the defence of the country from NATO forces - might be uncontroversial, any figure numbering in the hundreds would prompt a major political debate. Without Liberal support, no resolution to keep military trainers in Afghanistan would make it through the House, and the Canadian government would have to refuse the request.

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The Americans have made it clear that they are unhappy Canada is pulling its military out, since this country is one of the few NATO members that has been prepared to endure the cost in blood and treasure to fight the Taliban.

The Canadian withdrawal is occurring even as the Obama administration has committed tens of thousands of extra troops in an effort to push the Taliban out of Afghanistan and stabilize the troubled country.

But sources say the Americans realize it would be politically impossible for any Canadian government to reverse its commitment to leave, since there is broad support among Canadians for ending the deployment.

Leaving military trainers in Afghanistan would comply with the commitment to end Canada's role in the fighting, while still giving Canada a continuing role in the struggle. But if that request does indeed involve hundreds of soldiers, many Canadians will see the move as a continuation of Canada's participation in the war by other means.

Afghanistan has become a bitterly divisive domestic issue in many nations. The Dutch government collapsed last month when the governing coalition fell apart over Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's efforts to extend the Netherlands military deployment beyond the August, 2010, deadline for withdrawal.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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