OTTAWA — Canadian Forces trainers in Afghanistan will not be drawn into combat, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised Parliament on Tuesday.
Harper said Canada’s fighting mission will end next year as scheduled, as his government finally confirmed that the country will keep up to 950 soldiers and support staff in Afghanistan on a training mission until 2014.
“This will not be a combat mission,” Harper said in response to a question from Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.
“It will occur in classrooms, behind the wire and in bases,” he added. “This is a way of ensuring we consolidate the gains we’ve made and honour the sacrifice of Canadians.”
Outside the Commons, Ignatieff said the Liberals support the training mission and don’t feel formal parliamentary approval is required.
He agreed with the prime minister that the decision is one for the government to make.
A new poll suggests Canadians are wary of any extension to the military mission in Afghanistan, which has claimed the lives of 152 members of the Forces.
The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey indicates respondents are split on the issue, with 48 per cent saying all troops should be brought home once the combat mission ends next July and 42 per cent saying some troops should remain to help train the Afghan military.
About 60 per cent are opposed to a Canadian military presence in Afghanistan, while only 37 per cent support it.
The telephone survey of just over 1,000 people was conducted Nov. 11-14 and is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times in 20.
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said the “non-combat” troops will be stationed in the Kabul area and will also provide humanitarian aid.
The precise makeup of the contingent will be decided after consultation with NATO allies.
“After 2011, our efforts will be centred in Kabul,” Cannon said. “We shall dedicate ourselves to development, diplomacy, and a non-combat role in training members of the Afghan National Security Forces.”
Defence Minister Peter MacKay said the withdrawal of the combat force will likely begin months before the July 2011 withdrawal date set by Parliament because of logistical considerations.
“Given that reality of what is usually seen as fighting season . . . that is one of the options we may pursue, that is to say, we will start to draw down sooner,” MacKay said.
MacKay said Canadian troops will not accompany their Afghan trainees on operations — the sort of field mentoring that could expose them to front-line fighting.
He said the new mission will cost the military up to $500 million a year. The move to Kabul from Kandahar alone will cost $85 million.
The government will spend another $100 million a year over three years on development and aid.
The government says the mission extension does not require formal parliamentary approval, but the NDP is making a concerted push for a Commons vote.
New Democrat MP Jack Harris called the extension a “function of mission creep” and said it’s “laughable” to suggest the new undertaking is already covered by previous parliamentary votes.