Canada may keep a military presence in Afghanistan after its combat mission ends next year in order to strengthen the country's national security forces, an all-party House of Commons committee on the conflict says.
The Canadian Forces is scheduled to end the combat mission in July 2011, but there have been persistent calls from NATO for Canada to maintain a small non-combat military presence that would help in the ongoing - and often frustrating - effort to train local soldiers and police officers.
It's an idea that the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan is willing to explore, said Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae.
"The door is open to a serious discussion in Canada, and then between Canada and NATO, about what the future looks like," Mr. Rae said earlier this week as committee members paid a visit to Kandahar Airfield.
"Increasing the capacity both of the Afghan police, the Afghan military and frankly the Afghan judicial system has been very much part of what we've been doing and I think it's something that needs to continue."
The committee spent several days touring facilities in Kandahar and Kabul, but details of the visit could not be reported until Thursday for security reasons.
Tory MP Kevin Sorenson, the chairman of the committee, said Canada could play an integral role in strengthening Afghanistan's police and military in 2011 and beyond.
"We all realize that the Afghan police as well as the military are going to have to increase capacity if they're going to be able to secure their own country, and Canada may have a role in that," Mr. Sorenson said.
The politically sensitive question of Canada's future role in Afghanistan has dogged the federal government since Parliament passed a motion two years ago that requires the Canadian military to cease combat operations by July 2011 and withdraw from Kandahar.
Canada has about 50 RCMP and municipal officers and 40 military police personnel mentoring Afghan cops at the provincial reconstruction centre in Kandahar city. The U.S. recently poured more police mentors into the base and also operates a police training centre near Kandahar Airfield.
Washington's preference would be to have the Canadian battle group remain where it is. But a fallback position, as suggested by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, would be for Canada to play a larger role in doing something it already does: training the Afghan army.
NDP defence critic Jack Harris said a post-2011 role for Canada is in the works, but suggested a military presence was not the only option on the table.
"All Canadians do not want to see the sacrifice that has been made be for naught and we do have obviously a considerable amount of humanitarian concerns and institution-building concerns about Afghanistan," Mr. Harris said.
"Whether that involves military or not is another question indeed. There are lots of other ways that we can help build institutions."
The Afghan National Army is considered far more prepared to crack down on insecurity than the Afghan National Police, a force that continues to struggle with a tarnished reputation among local villagers after years of corruption, extortion and drug abuse.
Many officers still lack training and equipment as basic as handcuffs.
During a tour of Kandahar two weeks ago, federal International Development Minister Bev Oda said the U.S. has offered to provide security for Canadian civilian projects past July 2011, though planning is still at a preliminary stage.
And the Mounties have already started looking at how to continue the police training mission next year, RCMP Commissioner William Elliot said in April.
Since Canada's mission in Afghanistan began in 2002, 146 Canadian military personnel and two civilians - diplomat Glyn Berry and journalist Michelle Lang - have been killed.
Canada has more than 2,800 military personnel in Afghanistan, the large majority of whom are in Kandahar.