CHICAGO - The time has come to finally close the door on more than a decade of Canadian military involvement in Afghanistan, the prime minister said Monday at the end of the NATO summit.
Though Canada will continue to financially support the Afghan army, there will be no boots on the ground once the NATO-led mission concludes in two years time, Stephen Harper said.
"The end date is firm and final," Harper said.
"Canada will not have a military mission after March 2014."
Harper's announcement came as NATO and its partner nations re-affirmed they are on the way out of a long and costly war that has to date claimed the lives of more than 3,000 foreign troops, including 158 Canadian, and thousands of Afghans.
Essentially, they committed to sticking to the plan laid out in 2010: Afghan security forces will continue to take control of combat efforts with an eye towards being in full control by 2013, allowing NATO to slide into a support role until 2014.
"The time has come," Harper said.
"All the benchmarks, all the milestones are being met to make this possible."
After 2014, the 28-member alliance and its partner countries will act in an advisory role and also help financially support the Afghan military's estimated $4.1 billion a year cost.
Canada will contribute $110 million a year to that effort for three years, Harper also announced Monday, following in the footsteps of Germany, the U.K. and Australia who have already announced their own contributions.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said that broadly, NATO leaders were making a decisive commitment to the long-term future of Afghanistan.
"The message to the Afghan people is that we will not desert them," he said.
"And the message to the insurgency is equally clear: You cannot win on the battlefield. You should stop fighting and start talking."
The arc of Harper's views on Afghanistan might have been summed up in his body language as he and other NATO leaders began their second and final day of meetings to discuss the alliance's problem child.
Harper was once the strongest proponent of the war in Afghanistan, vowing Canada wouldn't cut and run.
But at the meeting, he rocked back and forth in his chair and didn't even bother to stifle a yawn.
"If you asked me frankly, would I wish it was earlier, I would say yes," Harper said of the 2014 final pullout.
"But I think we're doing it as early as is feasible."
Harper wasn't alone in his fatigue.
Domestic political and economic pressures have made it unpalatable for many of NATO's member nations and partner states to continue playing a combat role in Afghanistan after more than a decade of conflict.
In particular, U.S. President Barack Obama faces an election this year and with it an American public increasingly not on side with a war that has grown since he took office.
The president said the plan reached at the summit was a responsible one.
"I don't think there's ever going to be an optimal point where we say, 'This is all done. This is perfect. This is just the way we wanted it and now we can wrap up all our equipment and go home'" Obama said.
"This is a process, and it's sometimes a messy process."
Canada currently has around 950 soldiers in Afghanistan involved in training the military.
They were assigned to that role following the end of Canada's involvement in combat missions in 2011.
That date too was supposed to be a firm end point for Canada's Afghan mission, until Harper announced midway through 2010 that a training contingent would remain.
So the New Democrats said Monday that they viewed Harper's promise that 2014 was a firm end with some skepticism.
"We certainly welcome the decision as we were calling for it," said the NDP's Jack Harris.
"And we hope that unlike he did in 2011, he actually sticks to this decision and doesn't get further pressure closer to the deadline."
Post-2014, there had been speculation Canada might at least leave some special forces in the country as part of ongoing counter-terrorism efforts or perhaps answer NATO's calls for additional trainers.
But Harper insisted the end means the end.
"There will be no Canadian military mission to Afghanistan after 2014," he said.
"I can't be clearer than that."
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he respected Harper's decision.
"At the end of the day, it is a national decision whether a country wants to deploy troops or trainers," he said.
Fogh Rasmussen said he appreciated Canada's financial commitment and also acknowledged Canada's contributions to NATO missions for many years, which he called "very valuable."
The money Canada is extending to the Afghan military shouldn't be considered a parting gift, Harper said.
"We are all determined that the Taliban receive the message that this is not an abandonment of Afghanistan," he said.
"This is a transition to Afghan responsibility but none of us will rest. We will make the contributions necessary to ensure the Taliban does not reassert control over this country."
He said Canada also intends to keep a close eye on how the money is spent.
"The money we are putting into this is to the Afghan military," he said, addressing concerns about financial corruption in the country.
"We are not going to see it used for some other purpose."
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