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Canada heads for Afghan exit after 9 years at war

05 july 2011, 18:00
After nine years, 157 troop deaths and more than $11 billion spent, Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan finally comes to an end this week, AFP reports.

With popular support for the war sapped at home, some of the nearly 3,000 Canadian troops, based mainly in the dangerous battleground of Kandahar, have already started returning from Afghanistan, and the rest will follow soon.

In recent days and weeks, they have been completing their final patrols, packing up dusty outposts and gathering at the giant Kandahar airfield military base to debrief before starting to catch their flights home.

The official end of Canada's hard-fought mission, which began in early 2002 a few months after the US-led invasion of the country, comes Thursday, and as other countries also announce partial troop withdrawals from the Afghan theatre as Western voters tire of nearly a decade of war.

Last month US President Barack Obama announced that he would withdraw 33,000 US troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, while France, Belgium and Britain have also said they will soon bring some troops home.

All foreign combat forces are due to hand security to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.

While many Canadian troops say they feel elated to be going home to their families, commanders insist they will stay focused on the job right up until the end.

"It's not finished until it's finished. The image that we are using is a relay race. When you pass the baton on a relay race, you're not slowing down," deputy taskforce commander Colonel Richard Giguere said.

"That's what the Canadians are doing right now."

Canada will hand its battleground over to US control, and the military insists it has made worthwhile progress during its time in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban and one of the fiercest fighting hotspots of the war.

Giguere cited major steps forward on both security and governance in the districts of Panjwayi and Dand where the Canadians have been in charge.

"There’s a lot of pride in what the Canadians achieved," he said. "We're there to provide the security space that will permit the district governors to go ahead with their governance and development business."

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper first pledged in 2008 that troops would leave this year amid trenchant political debate.

And public opposition earlier this year seemed to be growing, with an opinion poll by Vision Critical/Angus Reid indicating that 63 percent of Canadians opposed the war, compared to 47 percent in 2010.

After the US killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May, Harper visited troops in Afghanistan and said he believed the war-torn country was "no longer a source of global terrorism."

The Canadians are the first major foreign troop contributor in Afghanistan to start sending forces home this year, although Dutch forces ended their combat mission last year.

A separate Canadian training mission involving 950 troops will work in Kabul with Afghan security forces as they take an increasing role in protecting their own country, despite lingering questions about their capabilities.

Canada will also continue to give aid to Afghanistan, and its overall involvement between now and the end of 2014, the deadline for all foreign combat troops to withdraw, is expected to cost around $700 million a year.

Meanwhile, question marks remain over controversial claims that Canada transferred Afghan prisoners to Afghan custody knowing they could face torture.

The Canadian government insists that top secret files released last month show the allegations are not credible.

By Katherine Haddon

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