Afghan mission progress fragile: MacKay

Defence Minister Peter MacKay is calling on the Afghan government to "pick up the slack" as the Canadian military hammers out the details and logistics of its new training mission in Afghanistan.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay is calling on the Afghan government to "pick up the slack" as the Canadian military hammers out the details and logistics of its new training mission in Afghanistan.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay says progress in Afghanistan has led to 'shifting of attitudes' among Afghan civilians toward Canadian soldiers and the Afghan soldiers and police they are training. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))
As NATO allies continue to try to limit corruption and improve Afghanistan's fledgling democracy and governance, the defence minister cited "incremental progress" in the country in 2010.

"There are definitely improvements, tangible improvements that we can see, that we can point to," MacKay told the CBC's James Cudmore in a year-end interview. "And yet, all of it is tenuous as far as, will it last?"

But MacKay insisted those gains translate into a "shifting of attitudes" among Afghans toward not only Canadian soldiers, but the tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police they are training.

"There is a realism there, but also an optimism that because of this progress, it will become more ingrained in the minds of Afghans that they don't want to go back to living under a terrorist regime, and they expect more of their own government," the minister said.

"And that is certainly the feeling with all the allies that we want the Afghanistan government to pick up the slack."

By the time the sweltering Afghan heat hits Kandahar next year, the bulk of Canada's forces will have begun their shift to Kabul. Last month, the Conservative government announced a plan to send as many as 950 trainers to Afghanistan after Canada's combat mission ends in July 2011.

This effort will assist in the formation of a professional Afghan army, and a professional police force — one capable of taking over security for Afghanistan by 2014.

Trainers will draw on 'hard experience'

The logistics of the new mission are still the subject of high-level discussions with NATO partners, MacKay said. But he added the Canadian government expects to see more clarity in the new year.

He said the training mission will take place in a static environment similar to Canadian Forces bases in Canada such as Gagetown, N.B., and Wainwright, Alta., where Afghan forces will receive physical and weapons training, as well as instruction on removing improvised explosive devices.

The minister noted many of those soldiers would be returning to Afghanistan having served on previous rotations.

"There's a lot of very hard experience we're drawing upon," MacKay said.

Since 2002, 154 members of the Canadian Forces have been killed serving in the Afghanistan mission.

Four Canadian civilians have also been killed, including one diplomat, one journalist and two aid workers.

The body of Cpl. Steve Martin, the latest Canadian soldier killed in the Afghan mission, was expected to arrive back in Canada on Wednesday afternoon at CFB Trenton in eastern Ontario.

Martin, who would have turned 25 on Monday, was serving with the 1st Battalion, Royal 22nd Regiment from the Canadian Forces base in Valcartier, Que., when he was killed on Saturday. An improvised explosive device went off while he was on foot patrol in the Panjwaii district in Kandahar province.

MacKay acknowledged the Taliban insurgency is not yet defeated, and what victories there have been have come at enormous cost. But he insisted the gains on the ground show the sacrifice has been worth it.

"How do you quantify that?" he asked. "Millions of children now in school. Infant mortality rates coming down. That gives them a chance. Seeing young Afghan women now able to not just participate in democratic elections, but sit and serve in their parliament, open a business, interact in a more free and open way throughout the country."

With files from James Cudmore