Canada Leaves Kandahar, Flag Lowered For The Last Time In Afghanistan
OTTAWA - The Maple Leaf flag was hauled down for the last time in Kandahar on Thursday.
The quiet ceremony at Kandahar Airfield marked the end of Canada's military presence in the war-wasted province.
The task force of Canadian troops assigned to pack and move the army's combat gear has completed its job and aside from a few clean-up details, the last soldiers will be out of the southern region by Dec. 12.
Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, who is in charge of all of Canada's overseas forces, said in a telephone interview it was "gratifying" to witness the last parade.
Most of Canada's war has been fought under NATO as part of the International Security Assistance Force.
Parliament ordered the army to leave Kandahar by the end of this year, ending more than five years of bitter guerilla warfare with the Taliban. Combat operations finished in July.
The removal of equipment is "on time and under-budget, which is always important," said Beare, commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Command.
The first Canadian soldiers to set foot in Kandahar were members of the special forces who went into Afghanistan in November 2001, according to access to information documents.
A full battle group of soldiers from the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry arrived in the spring of 2002 and stayed for a six-month mission under American command. The army spent two years in Kabul before returning to Kandahar in the winter of 2006, when violence spiralled out of control.
Canadians largely fought the Taliban alone until 2009, when the Obama administration poured in tens of thousands of reinforcements. The Americans took over responsibility for the entire province, home of the hard-line Islamic movement, earlier this year.
Beare said the Harper government's decision to withdraw is accepted and understood among the allies.
"They may miss us in terms of seeing the flag walking around KAF," he said.
"They'll certainly miss Tim Hortons, but frankly what we've left behind is in the hands of Afghans and in hands of many thousands of coalition forces that have come here since we got here in 2006. They know we're still in the game and we're going to be doing it from Kabul."
Canada still has roughly 950 soldiers in Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led mission to train the Afghan army. They are stationed at bases in Kabul and at satellite locations in the country's north and west.
The Harper government abruptly agreed to take part in the training mission in the fall of 2010, after years of insisting that the military would leave Afghanistan entirely this year.
Canadian troops will train Afghan army instructors in the finer points of soldiering until 2014, when most of the international force is expected to withdraw.
NATO's objective is to create a 352,000-man Afghan security force, including army and police.
As part of the move out of Kandahar, the Canadian military donated medical supplies, furniture, tools and construction material to the fledgling Afghan army, said Brig.-Gen. Charles Lamarre, who headed the transition task force.
"We were pleased to help out," Lamarre said in an interview.
The army also handed over backpacks, cooking equipment, generators, appliances, sports equipment and tents to a U.S. depot for distribution to the people of Kandahar.
All sensitive military equipment and vehicles were flown out of Kandahar aboard massive Canadian C-17 transport planes and contracted aircraft. Lower-priority material was shipped via private contractor overland through Pakistan.
The final ground convoys have been held up by Pakistan's decision to close the border to NATO traffic to protest a wayward U.S. air strike that killed dozens of Pakistani soldiers.
Beare is not fazed by the delay and said he's confident the equipment will get home, even if it means a delay of weeks.