OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s top soldier confirmed on Tuesday that the country’s entire 2,800-strong military mission in Afghanistan would be withdrawn by the end of 2011, appearing to dash U.S. hopes that some of the troops might remain.
The minority Conservative government has long insisted it will obey a parliamentary motion that said the mission in the southern city of Kandahar would terminate in 2011.
Critics, however, say the wording of the motion leaves open the possibility that some soldiers could stay on to protect development projects or train Afghan troops, or be reassigned to somewhere else in the country.
General Walt Natynczyk, the chief of Canada’s defense staff, said the combat mission would formally end in June 2011 and the last of the troops would be out by December of that year.
“The parliamentary motion indicates that all Canadian Forces members would leave Kandahar by December 2011 ... we’re going to be true to that motion,” Natynczyk told a House of Commons special committee on Afghanistan.
Pressed as to whether the troops would leave both Kandahar and Afghanistan at the end of 2011, Natynczyk responded: “It’s clear (the motion means) the end of the mission in Kandahar for all the soldiers and secondly, the end of the military mission in Afghanistan.”
Diplomats say the United States has pressed Canada privately to keep some of its troops behind.
On Monday, a Pentagon official said Washington wanted Canada to “stay with us” despite the withdrawal plans.
Polls show the mission is becoming increasingly unpopular among Canadians. So far, 133 soldiers have died in Afghanistan
Natynczyk said the withdrawal would be “a significant task” because Canada had 1,200 vehicles and several thousand sea containers in Kandahar that needed to be moved.
In Brussels, NATO said the announcement would have no impact on plans by allies to send more troops to Afghanistan to supplement a recently announced U.S. troop increase.
“The Canadian parliamentary decision has been, of course, in place for some time; all NATO planners are well aware of it,” said Alliance spokesman James Appathurai.
Despite Natynczyk’s statement, one prominent Canadian opposition legislator said he suspected the government wanted to leave troops behind.
“There is confusion on this issue. The government is holding its cards very close to its chest and not sharing what they want to do with the rest of Canada ,” said Ujjal Dosanjh, defense spokesman for the Liberal Party.
The Conservatives, who say Parliament will have the final say on the mission, control only a minority of the seats in the House of Commons and need the support of at least one other party to remain in power. All three opposition parties have made it clear they oppose an extension.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said earlier this month that he did not detect enthusiasm in any political party for staying in Afghanistan beyond 2011.
With additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels; editing by Rob Wilson