KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The first significant wave of Canadian troops destined to train Afghan security forces arrived on the ground Monday, marking the beginning of a major shift in Ottawa’s contribution to the war-ravaged nation.
The announcement was tucked into Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s farewell tour of Kandahar.
Instability reigns in many parts of Afghanistan and it was brutally driven home over the weekend in a deadly Taliban attack in the northern part of the country.
“Obviously in every part of Afghanistan, dangers exist. We’re not kidding Canadians about this,” said Harper, who emphasized Canadian advisers and trainers will work in classrooms behind the wire, not on the front lines.
His comments came just days after a deadly attack in Takhar province Saturday.
A suicide bomber dressed as an Afghan police officer detonated his explosives and killed six, including two German soldiers. The attack also wounded the NATO forces northern commander, as well as the provincial governor.
Harper acknowledged the hazards of a place in which Canada has lost 156 soldiers killed.
“It is a violent and dangerous country,” he said. “There can be attacks that come to the base and from within the base. Obviously we expect these things to be of a significantly lower risk than that we’ve experienced over the past several years.”
Col. Peter Dawe, deputy commander of the training mission, said the army is “mitigating the risks in many ways.”
Troops will often live and work in compounds, will limit their movements and “won’t be travelling frivolously” around the countryside.
“But in the end of the day it’s a difficult environment,” said Dawe who once commanded the 3rd battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, the unit selected as the core of the first training team.
“Our troops are well-trained. They’re prepared for it. They’re going into this with eyes wide open. For the most part, we’re talking about combat veterans here.”
The bulk of the 950 trainers will be deployed in Kabul, but 90 medical and military police advisers will be stationed in Mazar-e-Sharif, in the north. A further 15 soldiers will work out of NATO’s regional training centre in the western city of Herat.
When the training mission was announced last November, the Harper government was adamant that it would be exclusively based in the Afghan capital.
Dawe said the decision to go elsewhere was made because NATO needed trainers in those locations.
Roughly one-third of the total training force is already on the ground in Kabul and the rest will follow between now and November.
The headquarters that oversees what the army has dubbed Operation Attention was officially activated last weekend.
NATO’s goal is to train 179,000 Afghan soldiers and to have them ready to assume full responsibility for the country’s security by 2014.
There are currently 159,000 Afghans in uniform, but the entire training regime has for years suffered dashed expectations.
Harper, who met local Afghan commanders in Kandahar on Monday, said he was impressed with what had been accomplished to date and shrugged off questions about whether NATO leaders are being realistic.
“I’m confident it is a mission we will achieve,” he said. “We’ll put out shoulder to the wheel.”
The establishment of the new mission makes Canada the No. 2 troop contributor to training Afghans after the United States.