The Conservative government intends to keep some Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan in a non-combat role beyond Parliament's 2011 end-date for the military mission, CBC News has learned.
Dimitri Soudas, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office, told CBC News there will be Canadian troops in Afghanistan after 2011, though "exponentially fewer."
"I would caution you against saying dozens or hundreds or a thousand, there will be exponentially fewer," Soudas said. "Whether there's 20 or 60 or 80 or 100, they will not be conducting combat operations."
Soudas said the government will shift its focus from combat operations and in-the-field training of Afghan police and soldiers to a development and reconstruction mission.
The military's training mission will continue in protected facilities, he added. Canadian troops' combat-mentoring role would end.
"You can do training in training facilities," Soudas said. "And when I say training, I mean Canadian soldiers will not be doing combat training of Afghan soldiers in harm's way."
Speaking in Welland, Ont., on Friday afternoon, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters the government would not seek to extend the mission authorized by Parliament in 2008.
"Well, let me be very clear …" Harper said, "Canada's military mission in Afghanistan will end in 2011."
The current mission in Kandahar, which begun at the end of 2006, includes 2,800 troops focused around an infantry battle group. That, in the government's view, is the military mission.
The new mission will still contain troops, but its focus will be reconstruction.
Over the past two weeks there has been intense speculation about the future of the mission, initiated in part by Defence Minister Peter MacKay.
MacKay suggested on three separate occasions over the past two weeks there might be a role for troops in Kandahar post-2011, while at the same time maintaining, "the military mission would end."
Those comments caused a minor furore in the House of Commons with angry opposition questions and blistering government retorts.
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar asked the government on Friday to be more clear.
"We have one minister, minister MacKay, saying we're going to be there after 2011, there will be a role for the military. We have the prime minister and other ministers — minister [Lawrence] Cannon — getting up and saying, it's all over in 2011."
Dewar said the government should make public its intentions for the military's future role, for the sake of Canada's soldiers.
"What do you say to the men and women? And what do you say to Canadians? And, finally, what do you say to our allies?" Dewar asked.
"We should be putting our allies on notice in written form that we are out, and the date. If we don't do that, we're not being responsible to our allies, we're not being responsible to the men and women who are serving and we're not being accountable to Canadians. "
Harper said it was always the government's intention to change the makeup of Canada's Afghan deployment as the 2011 deadline approached.
"We set out some timelines there for training and for exit and the government has no intention of asking for an extension of that mission," Harper said.
"By the time we reach 2011, we will have been in Afghanistan longer than we will have been in both world wars combined, so I think it is time to transform that mission towards development and humanitarian efforts."
Saturday morning, Soudas contacted the CBC to say the number of troops in Afghanistan after 2011 could range from zero to just a few, or possibly more.
But Soudas said the government has not decided on the final makeup of any future Canadian mission in the war-torn country. He said the issue was still being discussed, and NATO would be notified once a decision was made.
Soudas said the important point is that no matter how many Canadian troops are in Afghanistan, they will not be engaged in combat.
"The military mission ends in 2011. Canadian soldiers will not play a combat role post 2011," Soudas later wrote in an email.
"In terms of our post-2011 involvement, Canada will focus on development, reconstruction and humanitarian assistance."