Canada ends Afghanistan combat role

Canada has formally ended its combat role in Afghanistan, closing a mission that has cost 157 soldiers their lives since 2002 - casualties that shocked Canadians unaccustomed to seeing their troops die in battle.

The move adds to the burden of US and Afghan troops who are trying to prevent a Taliban rebound in the militants' southern stronghold where Canadian troops had been fighting in their bloodiest conflict since the Korean War.

Canada is withdrawing its combat units as the sixth largest troop-contributing nation, behind the US, Britain, Germany, France and Italy. Like Americans and Europeans, Canadians have grown weary of the war as it nears the 10-year mark.

While 2850 Canadian soldiers are going home, 950 others have started streaming into Afghanistan to help train Afghan security forces to take the lead role in securing the country by 2014.

Canada passed the responsibility for two districts of Kandahar province to US forces at Kandahar Air Field during a ceremony held in a hall decorated with Canadian maple leaf flags. After remarks, handshakes and the exchange of military paperwork, troops held a moment of silence for their fallen comrades.

Since 2002, 157 Canadian troops, one diplomat, one journalist and two aid workers have been killed in Afghanistan.

The bodies of all Canadian soldiers who die in Afghanistan are flown to Ontario and driven to a Toronto morgue before their bodies are returned to their hometowns. Canadians often line the overpasses of Highway 401 - now known as the "Highway of Heroes" - to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers.

Canadian officials said the troop deaths and bodily harm and psychological wounds suffered by soldiers must be seen in context with the progress they helped make in Afghanistan.

"We've seen a complete change," Canadian Brig. Gen. Dean Milner, commander of Joint Task Force Afghanistan, said in a video teleconference from Kandahar. "I think the Canadians have held the fort here for five or six years. With the surge of American forces and Afghan forces over the last year, we were able to accomplish a great deal."

"It's gratifying to see children going to school - schools opening up all over the place - roads being built, ministry buildings. There's a lot to speak about."

After staking out a place near the relative quiet of Kabul in 2002, Canada decided its military was ready and able to do more and assumed responsibility for Kandahar in 2006. Kandahar is where the Taliban was born in the early 1990s. A city of 800,000, its population is mainly ethnic Pashtun, the same as the Taliban. Most recently, Canadian troops were deployed in Panjwai and Dand districts, just outside the city.

The withdrawal of the Canadian combat troops, which will reduce the US-led coalition to about 130,000 forces, comes at a time the Taliban continue to show their resilience, peace talks are in their infancy and governance and development are lagging security gains on the battlefield.

Underscoring the persistent dangers, a roadside bomb killed eight Afghan policemen patrolling in a vehicle in Jawzjan province in northern Afghanistan, said provincial police chief, Abdul Aziz Ghyrat. Northern Afghanistan had been relatively calm but has seen a rise in violence over the past two years.

"It's safe to say that the country of Afghanistan remains volatile," Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "There have been very hard-fought gains made as far as the stability and security, but it is fragile and much of the responsibility rests, of course, with the government of Afghanistan."

MacKay said the process of training Afghan forces was well under way. But he added: "It is the professionalism and their ability to secure some of these particularly violent regions like Kandahar that will be the telling feature as to whether the security will last."

Canada's role in Afghanistan stood in contrast to its refusal of a US request to send troops to Iraq. The decision by Canada's former Liberal government not to participate in the Iraq war was seen as a rebuff to the Bush administration, and the stepping up of the Afghan mission may have been part of an effort to repair ties with Washington.

The United States currently has more than 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, far more than any other foreign country. President Barack Obama announced last month that 33,000 American troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of next summer.

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Wednesday that the UK would withdraw 500 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, a move that will reduce the size of the British contingent to 9000.

Other top troop-contributing nations are Germany with 4800, France with 3900 and Italy with 3880.

French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet has said that about 1000 French troops will be out by the summer of 2012.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has said his country aims to start pulling out troops by the end of the year.


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