A group of MPs visiting Afghanistan has left the door open for an agreement in Parliament to keep some Canadian troops in the country after the current mission ends next summer.
At the end of their five-day visit, members of the parliamentary committee on the Afghan mission said that they were surprised at the level of success the Canadians have had militarily, as well as in terms of development.
As a result of their trip, most of the committee's members said they believe Canadian troops should have a role in Afghanistan beyond 2011, but one that would focus on training instead of combat.
Liberal member Bob Rae said it's time for an "intense discussion" on what Canada's role will be in Afghanistan after next year, and appeared to suggest a deal could be reached among the parties to see some troops stay.
"We have an obligation to see this thing through," Rae said. "The door is open to serious discussion in Canada — and between Canada and NATO — about what the future looks like."
Chaired by Conservative MP Kevin Sorenson and vice-chaired by Liberal MP Bryon Wilfert, the committee includes Conservatives Bob Dechert, Deepak Obhrai, Jim Abbott and Laurie Hawn, as well as Rae, Bloc MPs Claude Bachand and Pascal Pierre Paillé and the NDP's Jack Harris.
The members toured Kandahar earlier this week, but details of their visit could not be reported due to security concerns. They spent the trip touring Canadian projects, talking with soldiers and civilian facilitators, as well as with Afghan leaders.
Sorenson said Canada could play an integral role in strengthening Afghanistan's police and military in 2011 and beyond.
"We all realize that the Afghan police as well as the military are going to have to increase capacity if they're going to be able to secure their own country, and Canada may have a role in that," he said.
NDP defence critic Jack Harris said a post-2011 role for Canada is in the works, but suggested a military presence was not the only option on the table.
"All Canadians do not want to see the sacrifice that has been made be for naught and we do have obviously a considerable amount of humanitarian concerns and institution-building concerns about Afghanistan," he said.
"Whether that involves military or not is another question indeed. There are lots of other ways that we can help build institutions."Recommendations likely by year's end
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. But Defence Minister Peter MacKay has said Canada is willing to continue mentoring Afghan police after the troop disengagement begins next summer.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa on Thursday, MacKay said he found it "encouraging" that there has been some discussion, while he added some of the MPs got a chance to see the fruitful work of the Canadian Forces up close for the first time in their visit.
"If those members of Parliament who are part of this committee are having a fruitful and inclusive discussion, I think that's fine. I think that's helpful, it's productive," the minister said. "But we will respect the will of Parliament."
The members said they hope to make their recommendations by the end of the year.
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, 146 Canadian soldiers have been killed. Four Canadian civilians have also been killed, including one diplomat, one journalist and two aid workers.