OTTAWA - The final rotation of Canadian troops destined for the training mission in Afghanistan began to trickle into the war-ravaged country as NATO planners face the challenge of recovering thousands of vehicles and tonnes of equipment after more than a decade in the field.
Just over 100 soldiers from bases in Edmonton and Shilo, Man., boarded a transport plane for Kabul, where Canada's commitment to the Afghan military continues to its mandated conclusion on March 31 next year.
Roughly 900 Canadians are still serving in Afghanistan and the fresh troops will be followed by a full set of replacements by mid-July.
The commitment of all Western armies to Afghanistan ends next year, with the United States expecting to leave behind a token force of 15,000 advisers.
A U.S. report recently estimated that over the next two years NATO will be bringing home more than 130,000 soldiers, 70,000 vehicles and 120,000 containers of war material.
Retired Canadian major-general Lew MacKenzie says will be akin to moving a fair-sized town or city.
"It's not like moving a building," he said. "It's going to be a hell of a challenge for the alliance, and you're going to have to decide what's so tired that you can't bring out."
Defence planners across NATO are concerned about getting gear out of the land-locked country at a time when the Taliban and other insurgent groups are still carrying out spectacular attacks.
Last week, seven Taliban fighters launched an assault on NATO's operational headquarters at the military section of Kabul's international airport. That followed an incident in the province of Zabul, near Kandahar, where six militants wearing suicide bomb vests attempted to storm a provincial court building.
MacKenzie said it remains to be seen whether the insurgents "will be happy to see them go" and let the convoys pass through Pakistan unmolested, or if they are bent on "trying to humiliate" Western forces.
The U.S. estimates bringing its material home will cost more than $6 billion.
Canada projected its exit costs in 2011 at about $651 million.
Parliament halted the country's combat operation in southern Afghanistan two years ago, yet there are still 375 shipping containers of non-lethal material stuck at Kandahar Airfield.
The containers were caught in a border dispute with Pakistan that saw convoys halted for months. They also faced benign neglect on the part of NATO, which hasn't viewed them as priority for the ground shipping queue.
The army hopes to it get all of its equipment out of Kabul by the end August next year, something MacKenzie said might be wishful thinking in light of past experience and the huge strain the alliance will put on private shipping and trucking companies in the region.
Most NATO countries are planning to fly out their heavy equipment and vehicles, and send non-urgent material via ground routes through either Pakistan, or north through Tajikistan.
Over the last month, the U.S., Britain and Germany recently dispatched thousands of logistics troops to manage their withdrawal, according to a report tabled in the British Parliament.
That same report also noted that, for the British, getting out Afghanistan will be a bigger endeavour than coming home from the first Gulf War in 1991.
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