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PMO orders DND to reconsider cancelling of danger pay for soldiers in Afghanistan

Canadian soldiers from the 22nd Royal Regiment patrol in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province southern Afghanistan June 13, 2011. Canada will end its combat role in Afghanistan by the end of July, after nearly ten years fighting.

BAZ RATNER/REUTERS/BAZ RATNER/REUTERS

The Harper government has ordered the Department of National Defence to reconsider a plan to reduce danger pay for Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.

The measure appears to be an example of the Canadian Armed Forces' efforts to cut costs as the Harper government tries to retire the deficit by 2015.

But one Canadian government official acknowledged the move was potentially toxic for morale in a military already coping with plenty of belt-tightening.

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"For rank-and-file soldiers, it's seen as an insult and the government backing off commitments they have made," the official said.

The Prime Minister's Office said on Wednesday that DND has been asked to rethink whether it really wants to reduce the special stipend for the more than 900 Canadian soldiers conducting military training in the Central Asian country, a mission Prime Minister Stephen Harper has touted on the world stage.

Staff in Defence Minister Peter MacKay's office said bureaucrats, not politicians, took the initiative to reduce soldiers' hazard pay.

The rationale given for the chop was that the mission in Afghanistan is not as dangerous as it was when Canada was engaged in combat rather than training. Canada's front-line combat mission in the southern Afghanistan province of Kandahar ended in 2011, and now, most, if not all of the soldiers are based in the capital of Kabul.

The decision was made by a hardship pay review committee whose members include a Canadian Armed Forces general-rank officer, a representative of the RCMP, and bureaucrats from Treasury Board and National Defence.The rating revision also affects some Canadian soldiers serving in the Middle East.

The Defence Minister has no power to interfere in the decision, officials said, and that's why the Tories have asked for a reconsideration of the cut rather than outright ordering it.

The cut in danger pay was to have started in mid-April, and would cost soldiers about $500 a month, Radio-Canada reported on Tuesday.

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"This decision about hardship and risk pay was made by officials, we believe it is incorrect, and the government intends to re-examine it," Paloma Aguilar, press secretary for Mr. MacKay, said on Wednesday.

New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris characterized the danger pay reduction plan for Canadian soldiers serving in Afghanistan and the Middle East as yet another example, beyond veterans funding, of how the Tories fail to support soldiers.

"It's inexcusable to blame bureaucrats for this move," Mr. Harris said. "The Minister needs to take full responsibility and commit to protecting the benefits our soldiers receive when they are serving on dangerous missions abroad."

The government's own travel advisory for Afghanistan warns Canadians that visiting this country "would place you and others at grave risk of injury, death or abduction."

It advises that "the threat to foreigners, including Canadians, from terrorist and criminal violence is extremely high and has increased in recent months." Furthermore, "no location can be considered exempt from risk," it says.

"Suicide bombs, rockets, improvised explosive devices, armed assaults, and ambushes are among the tactics used in these attacks. Exercise extreme caution at all times, particularly in public areas frequented by foreigners, such as hotels, restaurants, shops and marketplaces."

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