Five years after he first travelled to Afghanistan to embrace the military mission there, Stephen Harper returned to wave goodbye to Kandahar.
Travelling under a cloak of secrecy and security, Mr. Harper marked the moment on Monday by travelling well outside the heavily fortified expanse of Kandahar Airfield to a dusty forward base. Later, in 44-degree heat, the Prime Minister thanked troops on behalf of Canadians - and argued that despite "successes and failures" in a complex mission at the heart of the insurgency in Kandahar, it has achieved its goal.
"Afghanistan is no longer a threat to the world," he said
Calling the mission in general "a great success," Mr. Harper also recalled that "we have been charged with the single most difficult province in this country," in remarks to reporters at the end of his 12-hour visit.
"Afghanistan is still a violent place, a dangerous place for its citizens, and we're working to improve things for them. But this country does not represent a geo-strategic risk to the world. It is no longer a source of global terrorism. This is a tremendous accomplishment, one that obviously serves Canadian interests."
For Mr. Harper, who first came to Kandahar five weeks after he was first elected prime minister in 2006 and made three subsequent visits, pledging not to "cut and run," it was a rite of passage.
Wearing beige pants, flak jacket and helmet, Mr. Harper flew by Chinook helicopter 40 kilometres outside Kandahar Airfield to Sperwan Ghar, where he served lunch to the Royal 22nd Regiment.
There he mounted an armoured vehicle to climb the hill at the centre of the base and look out across the surrounding villages, and to hear a briefing on the last days of the combat mission from the Canadian commander, Brigadier-General Dean Milner.
Mr. Harper then flew to Tarnak Farms, a former al-Qaeda training base where fields of wheat now grow, and chatted with an Afghan farmer named Daoud about his crop. At Kandahar Airfield, Mr. Harper marked the move out of combat in Kandahar in a speech to 500 soldiers who listened quietly, and clapped as he closed.
The last major combat operation of the Canadian mission here is under way, and combat troops will stop all fighting before the end of July. The next rotation will pack up equipment by the end of the year. And the dwindling Canadian civilian operations, with their mandate to spread schools, rebuild dams, and re-establish the presence of government, will leave Kandahar, too.
More than 300 military trainers are already in Kabul, and as many as 950 will go there, and to two other centres in the safer north and west. Mr. Harper, more than any prime minister in recent memory, bound his political identity to a gritty combat role for Canada's military in a bloody conflict. But with a new majority mandate, bearing heavy responsibility for a bloody conflict and future Afghan progress is no longer at the centre of his role.
Mr. Harper's visit to Tarnak Farms - which was transformed into a wheat and barley field using Canadian irrigation equipment - was intended as a symbol of what Canadian troops worked to accomplish.
Paul Martin deployed Canadians to Kandahar in 2005, and Canadian troops arrived in 2006 not expecting the battles with massed insurgents they would face later that year, or the long grind to establish control, clearing insurgents from villages only to see them return when they moved on.
Standing in a square at Kandahar Airfield's new Canada House, Mr. Harper told soldiers that Canadians have built schools and vaccinated children, and made more progress possible.
"My friends, you have done exceptionally well. You came into the toughest part of this country and you held it - and now it is being developed."
That development is still not certain, however. A surge of U.S. troops last year has allowed Canadian troops to concentrate forces, mostly in the Panjwai district, where the Taliban was born. But though more schools are open, most are still closed; the development projects are fledging and Afghan government representatives, though more numerous, are still scarce.
The deputy commander of the Canada's Task Force Kandahar, Col. Richard Giguère, said allied forces have the clear momentum, but that will be tested in this summer's fighting season: "We will see."
Mr. Harper knows that the long, agonizing grind of a war with a heavy toll - 156 Canadian soldiers have died - combined with deep doubts about the prospects for lasting success, fuelled Canadian disenchantment with the mission.
For two years, Mr. Harper has himself grown increasingly skeptical, and critical of the corrupt and ineffective government of Hamid Karzai - the ally Western nations have counted on to establish a government and services that would persuade Afghans to shun the Taliban insurgency.
Mr. Harper has admitted that he would have preferred not to send more soldiers on a three-year training mission. But he could not refuse allies' call for help.
The training force will go to a Kabul headquarters and Afghan army and training schools in the capital, and two cities in the North and West: Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat -- including a 220-person support headquarters in Kabul. That mission, Mr. Harper said, still presents dangers, but nothing like combat in Kandahar.
He said he is "optimistic" that mission can build up Afghan forces despite skepticism that they will be ready to take over security by 2014.
He said he made it clear when he extended the combat mission yet again in 2009 that "the future of the mission had to be the transition toward Afghan responsibility and Afghan leadership" - and though Canada made the decision first, other allies have come to the same realization. He noted that Canadian troops have been in combat roles in Afghanistan longer than the two world wars combined: "I think this is the transition that we need right now."
He was joined by Defence Minister Peter MacKay, and Chief of the Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk. Calgary Flames' captain Jarome Iginla also made the trip.
The mission: Then and now
March 12, 2006
Timing: Stephen Harper's first foreign trip after becoming Prime Minister, it was a clear statement of the importance of the war in Afghanistan in his new, more muscular foreign policy.
Key message: Heading a new minority government, Mr. Harper wanted to make it clear his government would work with Parliament to ensure continuing broad support for the mission.
Quote: "There may be some who may want to cut and run. But cutting and running is not your way, it's not my way, and it's not the Canadian way. We don't make a commitment and then run away at the first sign of trouble."
Troops on the ground: 2,200
Death toll at the time: 12
Challenge: Based in Kandahar, the Canadian Forces were confronting the Taliban insurgency in one of its key strongholds, gearing up for hard-fought battles. Everyone knew the mission was dangerous, although few predicted the high number of casualties.
May 30, 2011
Timing: A key part of Mr. Harper's first foreign trip since he won his majority, the trip comes shortly after the death of Osama Bin Laden and at the end of a long combat mission.
Key message: Mr. Harper praised the Canadian Forces for improving the lives of Afghans, saying their work has been a clear success to date, ahead of the transition to a training mission.
Quote: "Afghanistan is still a violent place, a dangerous place for its citizens, and we're working to improve things for them. But this country does not represent a geo-strategic risk to the world. It is no longer a source of global terrorism."
Troops on the ground: 2,900
Death toll at the time: 156
Challenge: Prepare the transition from the current combat mission centred around Kandahar into a training mission based in the capital city of Kabul, starting in July. While it will be less dangerous, the mission is opposed by the NDP, which now forms the Official Opposition.