Top soldier says no plan to extend troop rotations

Canada's chief of defence staff said Thursday that no special thought is being given to longer rotations for Canadian soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

Canada's chief of defence staff said Thursday that no special thought is being given to longer rotations for Canadian soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier, shown in October, told reporters in Kandahar Thursday that there was no immediate plan to extend troop rotations. ((Bill Graveland/Canadian Press))

While extending troop rotations is always a possibility and considered regularly, Gen. Rick Hillier said he didn't anticipate such a decision in the near future.

"We look at these things all the time. We've made no decisions to change where we are right now," he told reporters in Kandahar, where Canada has about 2,500 soldiers serving throughout the province.

"We simply look at things all the time to make sure what we're doing is setting conditions for success with this mission and at the same time, setting conditions to reduce risk to our soldiers to the very lowest level we possibly can."

Hillier was answering questions about how the Canadian Forces would handle staffing the mission, which Parliament recently voted to extend until 2011. An extended Canadian mission is still contingent on whether NATO allies provide 1,000 extra troops and Ottawa secures access to unmanned surveillance drones and large helicopters to ferry Canadian troops around the region.

"I will say we learn lessons in this mission as we do every other … and those lessons over six, 12, 18 months help us change and shape things, from the vehicle suites that we need to the type of training we need back in Canada to the length of deployments," he said.

Although Hillier said deployments can last anywhere from one to 12 months, more than 12,000 Canadian soldiers have served in Afghanistan in six-month rotations of roughly 2,500 each over the past two years.

A senior military official in Ottawa told the Canadian Press Thursday that any rotation changes would likely be driven either by a substantial change in the situation on the ground, such as a marked deterioration or improvement in the security situation, or a substantial reconfiguration of the battle group.

"It's very much driven by circumstance," said the official. "The longer a soldier is on the ground, the tougher it becomes," the official added.

Hillier 'confident' more troops coming

The possibility of longer rotations was first raised Wednesday with Defence Minister Peter MacKay during an unannounced visit to Kandahar, where he told reporters that it would be up to the military to decide if that was a viable option.

"We're not ruling anything out, but of course these are operational decisions where I'll take that up with the chief of defence staff," Mackay was quoted as saying.

Canada will be seeking an additional 1,000 soldiers for two battalion groups in Kandahar province at a NATO summit in Romania next month, making it one of a handful countries seeking additional troops for NATO's 43,000-strong force, particularly in Afghanistan's volatile southern region.

Hillier, who will be attending the meeting along with other chiefs of defence staffs from NATO's 26 member countries, said Thursday he was "confident" the alliance would pony up extra troops.

More than 2,000 U.S. Marine Corps members recently arrived in Afghanistan to help fight a growing insurgency, although they're only slated to stay for several months.

France has suggested it could be able to provide 700 extra troops to reinforce Canadian operations in the south, but will not announce a decision on the matter until the Bucharest summit.

Eighty-one Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the start of the Canadian mission in the country in 2002. One Canadian diplomat has also died in the conflict.

With files from the Canadian Press