12/17/2012 05:13 EST | Updated 02/16/2013 05:12 EST

Military soul-searching as Afghan training mission winds down amid tight budgets

OTTAWA - Canada's long-standing military contribution to Afghanistan enters its last full year in 2013, giving way to a serious bout of soul-searching in a restless, battle-hardened military that's been thrust into an era of fiscal austerity.

Senior commanders appearing before parliamentary committees have often faced the same question from MPs and senators: How do you keep troops engaged and interested after a five-year guerilla war in Kandahar?

It is, in some respects, an age-old question for post-war nations, but it's one Canada hasn't confronted since the Korean War thundered to an inconclusive end nearly 60 years ago.

Canada's training mission in Kabul is scheduled to wrap up in March 2014.

There is no shortage of turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, but leaks regarding modest roles on the sidelines of Syria's civil war suggest the Harper government has learned Afghanistan's hard political lesson: boots on the ground are an extreme last resort.

The establishment of a quasi-al-Qaida state in northern Mali, the west African country where Canadian interests run deep, is actively debated, at least in academic circles, as the next Afghanistan.

Yet, those discussions are tempered with a healthy dose of fiscal reality.

Conservative dreams of international military leadership glory — similar to retired lieutenant-general Charles Bouchard's star turn during the Libyan conflict — that once seemed so close and so real have been washed away by a tide of red ink.

In some respects, the military as an institution has begun adjusting to the new reality and cast its eyes towards more modest, yet nuanced opportunities closer to home.

Spurred by a set of defence agreements quietly signed by the Conservative government this year with countries such as Colombia, the army has been actively studying and pursuing partnership opportunities in Central and South America.

Indeed, The Canadian Press has learned Ottawa is currently trying to negotiate a defence partnership with Chile.

Briefing notes prepared for Defence Minister Peter MacKay show Canada's military is eager to court Brazil as a partner because of its growing participation in international operations.

Canadian special forces have also been helping train Jamaican commandos. And Canada is also poised to deliver a modest stock of non-lethal military supplies to Belize.

Establishing and improving the country's links within its own hemisphere makes sense, said Brig.-Gen. Denis Thompson, Canada's special-forces commander.

"It doesn't take much of an imagination to come up with an emergency situation where Canada's interests might be involved," Thompson said.

"If you can pick up the phone, dial it and get somebody you know ... it's much easier to make operations happen when you already have a relationship with the person."

From a more hard-headed security point-of-view, the man in charge of Canada's military operations at home and overseas draws a direct line between Latin and South America.

Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare said partnerships take a front seat with most South American countries, but the burgeoning illegal drug trade that winds its way through Central America makes co-operation there more imperative.

HMCS Ottawa was recently credited with intercepting a major drug shipment, worth $145 million, in the eastern Pacific off Costa Rica.

The army conducted a study two years ago on potential military co-operation with Latin American countries, which noted the region is "occupying an increasingly important position in Canadian foreign policy."

And in a nod to the government's reluctance to put troops in harm's way, an internal briefing for army chief Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin described the Americas as "the only region that may demand use of what are relatively modest Canadian Army resources."

At every turn within the military, the discussion is prefaced by questions of money.

Many of the government's highly-publicized promises of stable and predictable funding for the Forces have taken a back seat to implementing both the government's strategic review and its parallel deficit reduction plan — both of which are expected to carve $2.5 billion out of a $19.5 billion defence appropriation by 2014.

MacKay's initial budget proposals did not carve deep enough into administration, according to a letter from the prime minister obtained last fall by The Canadian Press.

The fiscal question has pushed almost everything else off the table, including a much-anticipated rewrite of the country's defence objectives. The next iteration of the Canada First Defence Strategy has been postponed until sometime in 2013.

Many major procurements, including new navy ship supply ships and Arctic patrol vessels, have been pushed off into the future because of budget considerations.

Even in the hotly debated F-35 fiasco, which consumed much political oxygen on Parliament Hill in 2012, the government reiterated its maximum purchase price of $9 billion. That could very well put the stealth fighter out of Canada's reach.

In light of a recent independent audit of the cost of the F-35s, it's likely the government will hold an open competition to replace its aging fleet of CF-18s.

The Harper government was rock solid in its intention and vision for the military in 2010, the year it announced plans to buy the Lockheed Martin-built jet, as the war in Kandahar raged to its conclusion.

What a difference just a few years makes.

Beare said the military is now looking towards the close-out of the Kabul training mission, which replaced the shooting war last year.

Roughly 920 Canadian soldiers have been training Afghan non-commissioned officers in the art of training and educating their own forces. It is a relatively benign, low-key assignment, which had the twin political payoff of making a meaningful international contribution in front of allies while staying out of the spotlight.

The last of the trainers are due to be out of Kabul in March 2014; it will take until the following August to repatriate all of the army's equipment.

In the meantime, as NATO allies begin their own exit, Beare said the number of Canadian trainers has remained constant.

"We've divested jobs in some locations and picked some in others," he said.

"The forces at large have been adjusting in-country. The Americans are clearly sustaining their combat power, as are the U.K. and others, and we've been covering off on the Kabul-based training jobs, which has in some cases allowed them to draw down. In some of those cases, we've picked up from their reallocations."

The biggest instruction bases, including the Kabul Military Training Centre, will transition into the hands of Afghans next year.

"So, we'll be bringing big numbers home through 2013, and we'll be fully off the line by March 2014."