SEOUL (Reuters) - Several hundred Canadian troops will stay behind in Afghanistan to help train local armed forces once the nation’s military mission ends next year as planned, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Thursday.
The announcement marks a major change in policy for Harper, who said earlier this year that virtually no soldiers would remain beyond 2011. Canada has 2,900 troops based in the southern city of Kandahar, heartland of the Taliban.
So far, 152 Canadian servicemen and women have died and polls show the majority of Canadians oppose the mission.
Harper, saying his preference was still for all the troops to come home, told reporters that it was clear the Afghan army needed training.
“The Canadian forces have done a lot and sacrificed a lot for our gains in Afghanistan and I don’t want to have a situation where we lose those gains because the Afghans weren’t ready,” he said.
“I think that with a training mission of several hundred soldiers we can be sure progress will continue in a way that doesn’t seriously risk Canadian lives ... I’ve reluctantly concluded that this is the best decision.”
Canadian officials said earlier in the week that the force could comprise 750 instructors and 200 support staff.
The head of NATO’s training mission said last month the alliance was short of around 900 specialist instructors to train Afghan forces.
Earlier in the day Harper had referred to a proposed mission which would stay in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2014. His later remarks made clear the training force would be set up.
Harper said that despite pressure from allies, Canadian soldiers would not be fighting beyond next year. He also brushed off the suggestion that he had agreed to the training role after representations from other countries involved in the conflict.
Last week, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he wanted to set up a new training mission in Afghanistan, just months after the previous government collapsed over its involvement there and pulled out its 2,000 troops.
Harper is due to meet the leaders of other NATO nations at a summit in Portugal next week. He was in Seoul for a meeting of G20 nations.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Nick Macfie
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