Canada is to cut its military footprint in Afghanistan by more than 100 soldiers beginning in July, with further reductions likely over the next year.
"We'll have less than we have there now. We will have less than 800," said Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin, the head of the army, which provides most of the troops for the training mission that began in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat last year while thousands of Canadian combat forces left Kandahar.
Those returning home from South Asia beginning this summer are part of a group of more than 900 trainers mostly drawn from a New-Brunswick-based battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment, which only arrived in Afghanistan two months ago.
Devlin returned to Canada last week after visiting the training group in Afghanistan.
Canadian Maj.-Gen. Mike Day, who runs NATO's training mission in Afghanistan, indicated when he spoke with Postmedia News in Kabul in February that he was preparing recommendations to cut the number of alliance trainers because the training program would soon be larger than what was needed for the Afghan army. The force has expanded rapidly to more than 300,000 soldiers and is now taking in fewer new soldiers.
"The numbers may go down," Defence Minister Peter MacKay acknowledged. "(The Afghans) are going to run out of recruits to train over the next 18 months. We don't want our soldiers to be there if they are only sitting on their rucksacks."
When announcing Canada's contribution to National Training Mission ? Afghanistan late in 2010, the Harper government imposed a ceiling of 950 soldiers and announced the trainers' mandate would end in the spring of 2014.
"We remain committed until 2014," MacKay said. "What we are doing is working on the numbers in co-ordination with NATO and the Afghans."
One of the reasons that fewer Canadians were going to be needed was that the Afghans had been consolidating its military training centres, the minister said. For example, the regional centre in Herat, near the Iranian border, no longer requires as many NATO trainers because it is under complete Afghan control. The last Canadian instructors left there about three weeks ago.
As for what security assistance Afghanistan may require post- 2014, "We'll know soon enough," MacKay said. The shape of NATO's future force in Afghanistan is one of the key issues to be discussed at this weekend's leaders' summit in Chicago.
Canada is considering a request from NATO and Washington to contribute a small number of Special Forces soldiers to whatever military mission the alliance intends to keep in Afghanistan after the bulk of its troops leave over the next two years.
With most of Canada's combat troops home from Afghanistan since last summer, the army has recuperated enough that it is "on target" to soon have a full operational brigade ready to deploy overseas again for the first time since 2003, Devlin said. Such brigades usually consist of between 3,000 and 4,000 combat and support troops.
"On Nov. 1, 2012 we will be ready to do anything the government of Canada asks us to do. And we will get better over time," the "three-leaf" general said. "All the high readiness bits of (Quebec-based) 5 Brigade ? the troops, the task force HQ, the enablers, etc. ? they will be operationally ready then.
"It is not perfect. There will be some shortfall of vehicles because of upgrades to the LAV III fleet. But that is a good reason because they are getting an upgrade in Edmonton."
The training mission in Afghanistan that began last year was built around soldiers from the Edmonton-based Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. The next group to serve there will largely come from the Valcartier, Que.-based Royal 22nd Regiment.
Some enlisted soldiers have groused privately about their Afghan training deployments being cut short. One of their beefs has been financial. Those returning home early will not get the full tax-free benefits and other allowances that they would have received if they had served what was originally slated to be an eight-month tour.
"Soldiers are keen to deploy. They are keen to represent Canada. I am not surprised that there is some concern," Devlin said.
"We work hard to manage expectations," he said, adding that "we spoke to them up front. We told them nobody will come back before serving four months over there."
Regarding the financial aspect, which could cost some soldiers as much as $10,000 in additional income, Devlin said: "They make plans to spend the money. We'd be kidding ourselves to think that they didn't. But they are mature enough and wise enough to not write cheques until the funds are there."
The Van Doos, who are to begin arriving in Afghanistan late this year, have been advised "to be flexible," like the current group of trainers were, because the needs of NATO's training mission in Afghanistan might "move to the left" again, Devlin said.
"It sounds kind of hokey but this (the troop drawdown) is a positive," said the general, who commanded a NATO brigade in Afghanistan early in the war. "Canada's mission has been successful in producing Afghan soldiers and we should take pride in that fact.
"Canada was there from the get-go for NATO's first out-of-area operation. We spilt blood. We spent millions of dollars. We have had a significant role in where Afghanistan is today compared to where it was a decade ago."
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