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opinion

The federal government is finally signalling that some Canadian soldiers will stay in Afghanistan in a non-combat role beyond 2011. It's a welcome development: It was never clear why the Conservatives perpetuated the misconception that it was bound to remove every soldier from the country in 2011, especially when they have taken such a principled stand in support of the Afghan people.

Too many have died for Canada to simply turn its back on the country, especially with the Taliban threat remaining. In a non-combat role, Canadians can be confident that they will continue to play their part in rebuilding the country and ensuring that it no longer harbours international terrorists.

The parliamentary resolution passed in March 2008 says "Canada will end its presence in Kandahar as of July 2011." (emphasis added). But the very next sentence makes our long-term aims clear: "… the government of Canada … must set firm targets and timelines for the training, equipping and paying of the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, the members of the judicial system and the members of the correctional system."

Canada has already been doing this work in Kandahar, and can continue it in Kabul, where, for example, a military academy is graduating 1,400 new soldiers every two weeks. NATO needs Canada's help to keep the pipeline of trained soldiers flowing.

And it's not just Afghanistan's security institutions that require building, or re-building. The country is in special need of better infrastructure and governance. Canada has already done good work in these areas. NATO civilians who will continue doing it, in supposedly safe locations, will still need soldiers to protect them.

Michael Ignatieff and the federal Liberals are to be commended for their advocacy; at a potentially high political cost, Mr. Ignatieff called in June for an ongoing role for the Canadian military in Afghanistan. The Conservatives are belatedly following his example.

Nothing is risk-free in Afghanistan. But a non-combat mission will be safer than Kandahar. The terrible price Canada has paid there should not dissuade us from undertaking a mission that is less costly, but just as vital.