The first death of a Canadian soldier since the end of the country's combat role in Afghanistan had Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledging the "significant risk" attached to the training mission there, which he once described as "relatively safe."
Master Corporal Byron Greff and 16 others working with the NATO training mission were killed on Saturday in a suicide bomb attack in Kabul. He was one of more than 900 Canadian military personnel dispersed around operations in Kabul and two other cities – compared to an average of about 2,500 soldiers that were deployed at the height of the combat mission in Kandahar.
The Alberta native, who recently became a father, was the first Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan since the end of combat operations in July. He was based in Edmonton with the 3rd Battalion of the Princess Patricia's Light Infantry, and was on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan.
The Prime Minister offered his condolences to MCpl. Greff's family. He also said the government had never underestimated the danger that would be faced by the Canadian trainers to be stationed in the war-ravaged country.
"I've always been clear there are still risks involved in this mission," he told reporters Sunday at the conclusion of the Commonwealth summit in Perth, Australia. "Any mission in Afghanistan involves significant risk. … Any presence in Afghanistan, as I know from my own travel there, is fraught with risk, so there will remain risk to our defence personnel."
That's a change in tone, however, from a year ago when the government announced it would end the combat mission and undertake a major training role.
At that time, Mr. Harper confirmed to then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff that the mission would not involve combat, would be out of Kandahar and would take place in safe conditions in Kabul.
"It will be a training mission that will occur in classrooms behind the wire in bases," Mr. Harper said at the time.
In fact, Canadian military personnel are being assigned to 13 different locations, primarily in and around Kabul, but also in Herat in the west and Mazar-e-Sharif in the north. MCpl. Greff was killed while travelling between headquarters and a training location near the city.
Along with MCpl. Greff, 12 Americans and four Afghans were killed when the armoured bus in which they were travelling was targeted by a suicide bomber. The bus, a so-called Rhino, was travelling on the Darulaman Road, which is frequently used by NATO trainers moving from downtown bases to the Kabul Military Training Center.
Also on the weekend, three Australian military trainers were killed in the southern province of Uruzgan when an Afghan solider turned his rifle on them.
In a briefing to a recent parliamentary committee, Brigadier-General Craig King said Kabul is "extremely violent" and a "high-risk" location for the Canadian trainers. His testimony came on the heels of an attack on the U.S. embassy and nearby NATO base that lasted 20 hours and in which seven people were killed and 19 wounded by insurgents.
Canada also has more than 1,000 military personnel in Kandahar, engaged in the massive logistical effort of closing down the sprawling base and returning the equipment home. They are due to be out by the end of the year.
Retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie said the training mission was never going to be low risk, though the dangers are much reduced from the actual combat operations in and around Kandahar.
Critics argue the Prime Minister intentionally played down the risk involved in the training operation in order to avoid a Parliamentary debate on extending Canada's engagement in the Afghanistan. While the Liberals supported the training mission, the New Democratic Party was opposed.
"It's not as if the Canadian government didn't have due warning that losses would occur," said Michael Byers, a political-science professor at University of British Columbia and former NDP candidate.
"But the majority of Canadians were against the extension of the mission and portraying it as a non-combat mission enabled the Prime Minister to argue that no parliamentary debate was required. I believe that in a democracy we need to have these debates and they need to be based on the full range of information that is available."
With a report from The Canadian Press