Defence Minister Peter MacKay on Saturday repeated the government's official line that the country's soldiers would be withdrawn from combat in Afghanistan next year, but he also suggested some Canadians might stay.
Canada is willing to continue mentoring Afghan police after the troop disengagement begins in summer 2011, MacKay said as he wrapped up a three-day trip to the Central Asian country.
Canada currently has 48 civilian police — RCMP and municipal officers — and 40 military police mentoring Afghan police officers in Kandahar. On Thursday, MacKay announced 90 more troops would be sent to help train local police and the national army, but at the time he said those new trainers would be brought home in 2011.
"After 2011, the military mission will end," MacKay said Saturday. "What we will do beyond that point in the area of training will predominantly be in the area of policing."
Keeping up the police-training role might alleviate pressure from the United States, which has pressed Ottawa to extend its military commitment.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CBC last month that "I'm not going to sit here and tell you we're happy" with Canada's plans to bring its forces home next year. But she also said the Afghan mission needs countries willing to commit to non-combat work.
"We do need non-combat forces, for example, for training and logistical work," Clinton said.
MacKay wouldn't unequivocally say Saturday whether troops might remain deployed past the withdrawal deadline to train the Afghan National Army — in addition to whatever civilians or soldiers stay behind to instruct police — but he strongly intimated it was unlikely.
"Let's be clear, it's speculation at this point. We're talking over a year before Canada's military mission will end," the defence minister said.
A parliamentary motion passed March 13, 2008, calls for Canada to "end its presence in Kandahar as of July 2011" and for all forces to have left by the following December. Prime Minister Stephen Harper subsequently said that the vast majority of troops would be out of Afghanistan, and not just Kandahar, by the deadline.
About 2,830 Canadian troops are deployed in Afghanistan, mostly in the southern province of Kandahar, as part of NATO's International Security Assistance Force. Since 2002, when the mission began, 141 Canadian soldiers have been killed. Four Canadian civilians have also been killed.