Canadian troops to stay in Afghan beyond 2011

OTTAWA: Canada will keep some troops in Afghanistan beyond a lawmaker-mandated 2011 deadline for withdrawal to serve in development and reconstruction roles, a government spokesman said Saturday.

Canadian lawmakers voted in March 2008 to end the deployment of Canadian troops in Kandahar in 2011, but Dimitri Soudas, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper said troops would remain in Afghanistan beyond that date.

In comments to public broadcaster CBC, Soudas insisted there would nonetheless be a significant troop reduction.

"I would caution you against saying dozens or hundreds or a thousand, there will be exponentially fewer," he told CBC.

"Whether there's 20 or 60 or 80 or 100, they will not be conducting combat operations."

Though Canada's NATO allies have made clear their interest in an extension of the Canadian deployment, Harper has consistently said he must respect parliament's decision to end the mission.

"The military mission ends in 2011," Soudas told AFP. "Canadian soldiers will not play a combat role post-2011."

After the military deployment is over, Canada's mission in Afghanistan will change, he said.

"In terms of our post-2011 commitment, Canada will focus on training, development, reconstruction and humanitarian assistance," he said.

Canada has 2,800 soldiers deployed in the Kandahar region of southern Afghanistan, a stronghold of the Taliban insurgency. Since the beginning of the country's deployment in Afghanistan in 2002, 131 Canadian soldiers have been killed.