Despite official end to Afghan combat role, some Canadian soldiers still serving in volatile Kandahar region

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Canada's involvement in combat operations in Afghanistan ended when the last troops pulled out of Kandahar in December 2011, right?

Not quite, it turns out.

While the Conservative government fulfilled its pledge to bring home Canadian soldiers serving in the hottest part of the war zone in southern Afghanistan, The Canadian Press reports it quietly acquiesced to Department of National Defence pressure to allow Canadians to serve with combat units of other nations.

CP defence writer Murray Brewster, who served several tours as a war correspondent in Kandahar and wrote a book about Canada's Afghan mission, reports that while the total numbers are small — currently less than a half dozen — the Canadian soldiers are located in Kandahar, still the heart of  the Taliban insurgency.

An opposition critic told CP the policy violates both the spirit and the letter of the 2008 motion passed by Parliament to withdraw from combat operations by the end of 2011 and move into a large-scale training role in relatively safe areas such as the Afghan capital of Kabul.

Canadian forces joined American-led efforts in Afghanistan in October 2001, barely a month after the Sept. 11 terror attacks triggered the invasion of the then-Taliban-ruled country, sending members of the elite Joint Task Force 2.

Canadian involvement ramped up steadily, beginning in 2002, and by 2006 a 1,200-member combat battle group was taking on the Taliban in Kandahar province.

The cost was high, with 158 Canadian soldiers killed, mostly by roadside bombs, and more than 2,000 wounded in action or otherwise injured.

[ Related: The good, the bad and the ugly of Canada's Afghanistan mission ]

Canada is now officially part of NATO's training mission in Afghanistan, with plans to deploy more than 900 soldiers to drill the Afghan National Army. A contingent left Quebec City on Sunday, QMI Agency reported.

But CP unearthed a note from National Defence to the Privy Council Office through access-to-information legislation that requested an exemption from the non-combat status of Canadian soldiers "working in exchange positions with allied nations."

The request was supported by Defence Minister Peter MacKay, CP reported.

National Defence spokeswoman Lauri Sullivan confirmed to CP via email Canadian Forces "members serving as fully integrated members of foreign forces in exchange positions are permitted to be in Kandahar province and to serve in combat roles, as their host units direct them."

Sullivan said the exchange program provides valuable field experience for Canadian soldiers. CP reported internal documents show even before Canada began withdrawing troops last year, defence planners were dealing with several requests from allied countries to host Canadian officers in combat areas.

Since then, at least four Canadians have served in Kandahar — two with the Royal Australian Air Force, one with Britain's Royal Air Force and one with the U.S. Army.

NDP defence critic Jack Harris said such secondments shouldn't be allowed.

"I believe it's contrary to the parliamentary motion," Harris told CP. "It is a decision of this country that they're not going to participate, and their participation in the combat mission in Afghanistan is ended. That means no Canadian troops."

But it's not the first time the Canadian military has done an end-run around official government policy, CP noted.

Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien turned down a U.S. request to join the invasion of Iraq, but his Liberal government quietly allowed Canadian officers, including future chief of defence staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk, to serve on secondment in that war.