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Canada may keep non-combat troops in Afghanistan until 2014

The Harper government is considering a proposal to keep hundreds of Canadian troops in Afghanistan until 2014 in a non-combat, training role, the Canadian Press has learned.

The move would extend Canada's military presence in Afghanistan three years past the July 2011 withdrawal deadline set by Parliament.

The House of Commons motion calls for Canada's current contingent of 3,000 military personnel to cease combat operations next year in the volatile southern province of Kandahar.

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Sources say Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has made it clear there will be no extension of the combat mission, could decide the matter as early as this week.

The Conservative government has been under international pressure to at least leave a contingent of military trainers behind to help address a shortfall in the NATO-led mission.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay confirms Canada is considering allied requests to keep troops in Afghanistan past 2011 to conduct non-combat training missions, but he's not divulging details, including the numbers of troops.

Mr. MacKay said the government would likely make a decision in the coming weeks in the run-up to the Nov. 18 NATO leaders' summit in Portugal.

Mr. MacKay stressed that any such mission would take place out of Kandahar province, where fighting is fiercest and would be "behind the wire" - military parlance for non-combat mission.

NATO has identified a shortfall of about 900 troops to conduct training and Canada is mindful of those requests, the minister said.

Mr. MacKay finished three days of hosting foreign politicians, diplomats and academics at the Halifax International Security Forum.

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NATO's future in Afghanistan was a top topic of discussion, with many foreign participants wanting to know what Canada's plans are in Afghanistan post-2011.

Mr. MacKay said Canada's post-2011 role would respect the Parliamentary motion that calls for an end to combat operations by next summer.

But training Afghan security forces remains a top priority.

"It would be behind the wire, outside of Kandahar," Mr. MacKay said.

"In that context, that's what we're contemplating."

Earlier, U.S. Senator John McCain is urged Canada to keep some troops in Afghanistan after the combat mission wraps up next year.

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The one-time Republican presidential contender said there's a "strong desire" in Washington for a continued Canadian presence.

Mr. McCain suggested Sunday there could be a role for Canadian soldiers in training the Afghan military - an idea promoted by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff but so far rejected by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"We respect the Canadian government's domestic as well as foreign policy needs but we would really, really appreciate if the Canadian government and people could see their way clear to continue (a) presence, at least in the training area," Mr. McCain told CTV's "Question Period."

"As you know, that's a vital part of any success of counter-insurgency strategy."

Mr. Harper has been adamant that Canadian soldiers will leave Afghanistan when the combat mission ends next July, sticking to the exit schedule approved by Parliament several years ago.

He has appeared to rule out any continuing non-combat role for Canada's military in the war-ravaged country.

Mr. McCain acknowledged that allies have little incentive to stay in Afghanistan when U.S. President Barack Obama has unilaterally declared that American troops will begin withdrawing next year.

"That has encouraged our enemies and discomforted our allies," he said.

"I think it was a terrible, terrible mistake on the president's part and could cost us the ability to succeed."

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