Canadian mentoring of Afghan forces could also end after 2011 pullout

OTTAWA — Canada may end crucial training programs for the Afghan National Army when it pulls its troops out of Kandahar in 2011, The Canadian Press has learned.

OTTAWA — Canada may end crucial training programs for the Afghan National Army when it pulls its troops out of Kandahar in 2011, The Canadian Press has learned.

Allies at NATO and in the broader international community have been prodding Canada for details on what sort of military mission it might be willing to undertake after 2011, the deadline set by Parliament for ending the country’s costly combat mission in Kandahar and bringing home 2,800 troops.

But the training of the fledgling Afghan military, known as the ANA, will likely not be one of the roles Canada would play, according to Canadian and foreign sources. That decision comes as the NATO-led mission faces serious shortages of foreign troops to train Afghan forces.

The Canadian Forces currently have at least five Operational Mentor Liaison Teams in the Kandahar region, and deploy more troops for patrols with Afghan security units throughout the dangerous southern Afghan province.

“I couldn’t say firmly that we’re going to do training post-2011,” a senior Canadian government official told The Canadian Press, on the condition of anonymity.

“There’s part of the training that can be in combat. There’s part of the training that’s not in combat.”

Canada is also giving that same message to its allies in Afghanistan.

The Harper government has stood firm on the withdrawal deadline, but the question of what specific military presence Canada might maintain afterwards remains an open question. Canada wants to continue development projects and will operate an embassy in Kabul, but it is not clear if soldiers would continue to be involved in security or reconstruction missions.

Training the ANA, as well as the Afghan National Police, to become competent enough to protect Afghanistan is a key pillar of the international exit strategy. Fully trained Afghan security forces — a process expected to take years beyond 2011 — would eventually pave the way for the full withdrawal of international forces, a key feature of U.S. President Barack Obama’s new Afghanistan plan, announced last week.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon met in Brussels this past week with Canada’s NATO allies as the alliance cobbled together 7,000 additional troops from 20 countries, but not Canada. The number was short of the 10,000 the Obama administration wanted after committing an additional 30,000 U.S. personnel to the mission earlier in the week.

Indeed, the Canadian general who serves as a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan said there is a shortage of trainers for Afghan forces.

Brig.-Gen. Eric Tremblay told a briefing that ISAF needed an additional 41 military training teams, each of which would be comprised of 25 to 40 personnel.

In Ottawa, the Commons defence committee is poised to hear Tuesday from Gen. Walt Natynczyk, the chief of the defence staff, and two of his top generals on the Forces’ plans for the 2011 withdrawal.

Political opponents and analysts are calling on the government to initiate a public discussion now about Canada’s post-2011 military role in Afghanistan.

“Is there still something we can do with our armed forces? The government needs to start talking about this even though Canadians don’t seem to want to talk or think about Afghanistan,” said Fen Hampson, director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Ottawa’s Carleton University.

Stephen P. Cohen, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said that even though the U.S. has demonstrated “strategic incompetence” by ignoring Afghanistan in recent years, allies like Canada should consider staying, especially when military trainers are in demand.

“I would personally expect friendly governments to reconsider their earlier decisions and at least adapt a policy parallel to ours — give war a chance, while building the Afghan army and putting pressure on the Kabul government, and delivering assistance in a new way,” said Cohen.

“This is a struggle that can affect Canada as well as many European states, not just the U.S. The greatest danger is that radical Islamism will expand its presence in Pakistan . . . . In the long run, Pakistan is far more critical than Afghanistan.”

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said this past week his party is open to suggestions about Canada’s future military contribution to Afghanistan, but that combat should be off the table.

Ignatieff did not specify what role Canadian troops should play, saying only that, “we’re willing to entertain discussions about a different mission for Canada after 2011 . . . .”

But Hampson said Canada should reconsider an extension of the combat mission.

“We should put all of the options on the table, even if we decide to stay with the current course.”

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