TORONTO – Canada's prime minister said Thursday he's decided with some reluctance to keep troops in Afghanistan in a noncombat training role after Canada's combat mission ends in 2011.
A senior government official told The Associated Press earlier this week that Canada's government will keep 750 military trainers and 250 support staff in Afghanistan until 2014, a pledge of support that may help plug a critical shortage of 900 trainers for NATO's year-old mission to bolster Afghan security forces.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Seoul, South Korea that his preference would have been to see a complete removal of Canada's 3,000 troops. But he said he's convinced Afghan troops need further training.
"I'm not going to kid you. Down deep, my preference would have been to see a complete end to the military mission, but as we approach that date, the facts on the ground convince me that the Afghan military needs further training. I don't want to risk the gains that Canadian soldiers have fought for," Harper said.
The prime minister said Canada has been under pressure by NATO allies to continue in a combat role, but a training role was the most he could agree to.
Parliament has mandated that the combat mission in Kandahar province end in 2011. 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. Canada has suffered the highest per capita casualty rate of any coalition member.
"I think if we can continue a smaller mission that involves just training, I think frankly that presents minimal risks to Canada, but it helps us ensure that the gains we've made are continued ... to truly ensure that the Afghan forces are able over the next couple of years to take over true responsibility for their security. So I do this with some reluctance but I think it is the best decision when one looks at the options."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants his nation's police and army to take the lead in protecting and defending their homeland by 2014 — a deadline that will be reached only if the stepped-up training effort continues with support from foreign capitals weary of the war. U.S. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the commander of NATO's training mission, said this week that the NATO mission faced a shortage of 900 trainers.
A Canadian government official said this week that Canada's new contribution may bridge the gap. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because no authorization was given to speak publicly.
Harper did not provide further details on Thursday about what kind of training the Canadian soldiers would be doing.
Harper had said Canada's involvement in Afghanistan would be a purely civilian operation after its troops start pulling out of Kandahar in July 2011. All combat troops are due to leave Kandahar by the end of 2011.
Canada's opposition Liberal party said earlier this year it would support the idea of leaving trainers in Afghanistan after the combat mission ends, and now the Conservative government is saying it will do just that.
Canadians have long been concerned about the death 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.
After declining a U.S. request to send troops to Iraq, Canada increased its deployment in Afghanistan. Canadian troops assumed responsibility for Kandahar in 2005 and suffered causalities that alarmed Canadians, who weren't accustomed to seeing their soldiers in combat. Harper has previously said Canada has done its part by serving in Afghanistan's most dangerous province, a Taliban stronghold.