Afghan combat mission close-out costs Canada nearly $1B

The cost of bringing home all the military's equipment from Canada's combat mission in Kandahar is expected to top $651 million, according to the defence department. When salaries and support costs are added, the cost of the close-out is even higher: $924 million.

Figures could be revealed in report to Parliament within weeks

Canadian Forces engineers pack up the Canadian War Memorial at Kandahar Air Field last November, preparing to ship it back to Canada after its final Remembrance Day service in 2011. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The cost of ending Canada's war in Kandahar, bringing home all the military's equipment and reconditioning it is expected to top $651 million, according to figures and projections compiled by National Defence.

The Harper government has yet to deliver a final tally for the mission close-out costs, but a complete set of numbers could come with the release of a National Defence report to Parliament within weeks.

Packing up thousands of weapons, ammunition and hundreds of vehicles, including tanks and helicopters, was the biggest logistics operation for the military since the end of the Korean War in the early 1950s.

And the eye-popping estimate is only an incremental figure, the cost the federal government says it has paid over and above the routine expense of soldiers' salaries and support.

The full cost, when so-called routine expenses are considered, is roughly $924 million.

Loss of Emirates base expensive

The numbers are being spread out over three budget years, according to documents obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information.

Approximately $21 million of the total was carved out of the 2010-11 federal budget, says a briefing note prepared for Defence Minister Peter MacKay. The rest was split up between last year's budget and projected for the current year.

What remains unclear from the internal documents and from an email response by National Defence is how much of the price tag was driven by the diplomatic meltdown with the United Arab Emirates in late 2010. That disagreement that saw Canada ejected from its main staging base in the Middle East as the withdrawal was kicking into gear.

The Harper government was forced to move the military out of Camp Mirage, near Dubai, but eventually signed an arrangement with Kuwait to establish a replacement logistics hub in that country.

The new base was not declared operational until Sept. 22, three months after the withdrawal was underway.

Both opposition defence critics say the Harper government paid a steep price for the spat with the Emirates and must own up to the cost.

"The cost was obviously significantly greater as a result of this failure to handle the diplomatic side of it properly, and getting our backs up and deciding we either weren't going to co-operate or compromise," said New Democrat MP Jack Harris.

Liberal MP John McKay said he's been asking in the House of Commons for a detailed cost breakdown and projections for year, but the government has been stonewalling.

'Secrecy' condemned

It's part of the larger issue of budget transparency, which the parliamentary budget officer has taken up with court action over the refusal of some departments to hand over information, he said.

"These guys do credit to (Russian President) Vladimir Putin," McKay said. "There is a scale of secrecy on budget matters that is unprecedented."

A spokesman for Defence Minister Peter MacKay fired back Thursday night, saying the government has been forthcoming about the close-out costs, including posting them on government web sites.

Jay Paxton accused the Liberals of trying to score cheap political points in the run-up to Remembrance Day.

"I find it troubling that opposition members don't do their research on such important files," said Paxton. "Sixteen months ago, in June 2011, our government provided Canadians estimates on the cost of the combat mission in Afghanistan including close out costs."

Scrambling to establish a new hub mostly impacted the plan to fly out sensitive military vehicles and equipment aboard the air force's mammoth C-17 transports, which instead of routing through Dubai and off-loading their cargo to a container ship, were forced to go to Cyprus during the early months.

Overland shipments of non-sensitive material encountered obstacles as the Pakistanis shut the border for months in a dispute with NATO over the friendly-fire deaths of some Pakistani soldiers. There was also theft from shipping containers which arrived in back in Canada with some of cargo pilfered, replaced by sand and rocks.

Liberal Sen. Colin Kenny, who chaired the Senate defence and security committee for years, said the withdrawal costs are just the beginning the care for the sick and injured has yet to be considered.

"We're going to be paying for Kandahar for the next 40 years," he said.

Remaining Kandahar facilities hard to sell

Another problem that vexed military planners was the sale of up to $76 million worth of buildings that had been constructed at Kandahar Airfield throughout the five-year combat mission.

A briefing note prepared for the Defence Department's assistant deputy minister of infrastructure and environment noted in the spring of 2011 that all but $17 million of the property was snapped up by allies.

But the remaining buildings proved difficult to off-load.

"In numerous instances the facilities in question, although not currently of interest to any nation, are otherwise perfectly serviceable and could be an asset to a nation or (Commander Kandahar Airfield) at a later date," said the five-page Feb. 22, 2011, briefing, obtained under access to information.

Tearing the buildings down at a cost of more than they are worth "does not seem to make sense other than to satisfy our current mandate to close out the mission by the end of the year."

Planners looked at options ranging from walking away from the property to leasing the facilities to contractors or even making them a gift to Afghan forces.

They elected to engage support "at a senior NATO level" to lean on the commander of Kandahar Airfield to take the buildings off the hands of Canadians.