Canada Considers Staying in Afghanistan

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia -- Canada's defense minister said Sunday that Canada is considering a U.S. request to keep troops in Afghanistan past 2011, but switch them from a combat to a training role.

Defense Minister Peter MacKay said the troops would not remain in Afghanistan's volatile southern Kandahar province.

"It will be out of Kandahar and will be behind the wire, a noncombat role," MacKay said.

Parliament has mandated that the combat mission end in 2011.

Canada has about 2,900 troops in Afghanistan. More than 150 Canadian soldiers have been killed and more than 1,500 have been wounded since Canada first sent troops to support the U.S.-led invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The U.S. has been hoping for months that Canada would not pull its troops out of Afghanistan and now it appears almost certain that Canada will announce it will stay albeit in a different role.

"As we transition out of the combat mission we are considering the options to provide aid, development and behind the wire training in a non combat role," said Dimitri Soudas, the top spokesman for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

MacKay said Ottawa is not prepared to say how many troops might stay, but said NATO has identified a shortfall of about 900 troops to conduct training. He said about 400 Canadian soldiers do training now.

He said Prime Minister Stephen Harper would have more to say in the coming weeks in the run-up to the Nov. 18 NATO summit in Portugal. Harper told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton earlier this year that Canada's military mission in Afghanistan will end in 2011 despite U.S. hopes of an extension.

MacKay hosted a variety of foreign politicians, diplomats and academics at the Halifax International Security Forum over the weekend.

At the forum, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carollina, who both sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Saturday urged Canada to keep its troops in Afghanistan past 2011 in a training role.

Canada increased its deployment in Afghanistan after declining a U.S. request to send troops to Iraq. Canadian troops assumed responsibility for Kandahar in 2005. Harper has previously said Canada has done its part by serving in Afghanistan's most dangerous province, a Taliban stronghold.

Canadians have long been concerned about the toll in Afghanistan. The bodies of all Canadian soldiers who die there are flown to Ontario and driven to a Toronto morgue before their bodies are returned to their hometowns. Canadians often line the overpasses of Highway 401 -- now known as the "Highway of Heroes" -- to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers.