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As Canada pledges Afghan aid, signature project winds down

A Canadian soldier surveys the Dahla dam resevoir in 2009.

Colin Freeze/Colin Freeze/The Globe and Mail

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is pledging Ottawa's long-term commitment to help Afghanistan, but the last days of Canada's involvement in its most high-profile aid project there, the Dahla Dam, are winding down.

Mr. Baird was in Bonn, Germany, on Monday for an international conference on Afghanistan at which a central issue was allaying fears Western money will dry up when most troops withdraw in 2014.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said his country will need donors for another decade. Mr. Baird and counterparts such as German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle promised continued aid. "We will not leave you in the lurch," Mr. Westerwelle said.

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But in the war-ravaged province of Kandahar, where Canadian Forces soldiers fought for six years, Ottawa cut its aid to Afghanistan in half when the combat mission ended in July. Now Canadian aid flows mainly to nationwide programs, and projects focused on Kandahar are ending.

Two Canadians working on one of Canada's major aid projects, the Dahla Dam, are scheduled to leave by the end of the month, according to federal officials, when the current phase is to be completed. Like other Kandahar projects with Canadian involvement, future aid work is in the hands of U.S. officials.

The federal government spent $50-million over three years for work on irrigation canals that flow from the dam through the Arghandab valley in Kandahar province, making it Canada's biggest project. But Canadian officials confirmed that Ottawa has offered no funds for the next phase – raising the dam so it can hold more water – which is now in the hands of the United States, officials confirmed.

In Bonn, Mr. Baird said his goal was to signal that Canada's commitment to Afghanistan didn't end with the combat mission. He noted Canada plans to spend $100-million a year on aid between 2011 and 2014, and has the second-largest contingent at NATO's mission to train Afghan forces. Canada, he said, will be involved until 2014 and beyond.

"Obviously, Canada will stay actively engaged with Afghanistan, particularly on democracy and on promoting human rights and other development issues," he said in a conference call with reporters.

He pointed to the Dahla Dam, highlighted by the federal government since 2008 as a signature Canadian project, as proof of Canada's commitment.

"I think we have a substantial record of delivering assistance to the people of Afghanistan, whether it's for agricultural support through the Dahla Dam, whether it's through health and education, efforts to eradicate polio, and supporting human rights," he said.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said the three-year, $50-million irrigation-rehabilitation project funded by the Canadian International Development Agency helped revive farming in areas of Kandahar. It was aimed mainly at improving the flow of water through canals by removing silt and repairing damage.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is conducting studies and seeking interest from companies for the next phase – to expand the volume of water pushed through the irrigation canals into the arid Kandahar countryside by raising the dam so its silt-filled reservoir can hold more water.

The Bonn conference was itself a marker of long-term Western involvement in Afghanistan, held 10 years after the first Bonn conference on Afghanistan was convened to broker re-building agreements after the post-9/11 invasion.

Ten years later, the continued insurgency, and the record of Mr. Karzai's government, have Western nations looking ahead to smooth a difficult transition in 2014, when most NATO troops are slated to withdraw.

And this year's Bonn conference was overshadowed in part by the absence of a key player, Pakistan, which boycotted the conference after U.S. air strikes inside its territory killed 24. The United States and NATO believe Pakistan has at least tacitly allowed Afghan Taliban safe haven in its territory, and its absence was viewed as a setback to efforts to promote political reconciliation with some elements of the insurgents.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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