Canada will send 1,000 or more soldiers to Afghanistan to take part in the international security force policing Kabul, Defence Minister John McCallum announced Wednesday.
The move raised questions about whether the military would be able to provide ground troops for any war in Iraq. McCallum said the soldiers - likely from the Royal Canadian Regiment in Petawawa, Ont. - and a brigade-level headquarters should be in place by late summer. They would serve two six-month rotations.
"The post-Sept. 11 war against terrorism began in Afghanistan, it's going on still in Afghanistan and now we are making a further commitment to Afghanistan," McCallum said.
"Not in combat as we were before, but in a UN-based peacekeeping force in which, I think, Canadians will take great pride."
He stressed that the deployment does not rule out a Canadian contribution to a possible war in Iraq. But he acknowledged: "It is true that the more one sends to one place the less one may have available for other places."
Former defence minister Art Eggleton said Canada would be hard-pressed to provide any significant ground force in an Iraq war on top of the Afghan deployment.
"There's only so many ground troops that we have," he said. "If you send a battle group into Afghanistan you don't have really any other (ground) forces available in any large number."
Canada still has ships and aircraft in the Persian Gulf area that could be reassigned to Iraq-related duties.
The New Brunswick-based mechanized battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment and the military's special forces Joint Task Force 2, could also be available.
A departmental source said officials are considering far more than 1,000 troops for Afghanistan.
"They are looking at a very large headquarters - huge," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
McCallum said the exact number is yet to be determined, but a brigade-level headquarters suggests Canada will take command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), currently headed by Germany.
Canada deployed an 850-member battle group with American combat troops in Afghanistan last year. It was later withdrawn after they saw Canada's first offensive action since the Korean War. Four soldiers were killed by U.S. friendly fire.
The international force in Kabul, which now numbers about 4,000 soldiers, is dedicated to peacekeeping and the Canadians are not expected to see offensive military action.
But it's still a dangerous mission. Peacekeepers have come under attack from rebels, and 14 have died on duty since the United Nations created the force - seven of them German soldiers killed in a helicopter crash.
One Canadian officer predicted: "It's going to be ugly for them. ISAF is not having an easy go of it. I think it's going to make the Canadian public rethink 'peacekeeping."
In Kabul, armed peacekeepers patrol the war-ruined city 24 hours a day in jeeps, armoured cars and small tanks.
U.S. combat troops are still in several parts of the country hunting for al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives.
McCallum said Canada made the Afghan commitment after being "approached by the international community," but some critics suggested there were other motives.
Leon Benoit, the Canadian Alliance defence critic, suggested the government is trying to find a way around insurmountable logistical problems - namely finding heavy planes or ships to transport troops and equipment to the Middle East in time for an Iraq war.
"This is a way out for them," he said.
New Democrat Bill Blaikie said he's fine with that.
"If it's a substitute for a war on Iraq, then we welcome the government's not wanting to participate in a war on Iraq."
Conservative Leader Joe Clark said he supports what he called a "carefully taken" decision by the government.
But Benoit said he's disappointed the deployment may mean Canadian troops won't be on the front lines of a war in Iraq.
"Canadian troops are as good as any in the world and don't want to be relegated to second-tier status by anyone," he said. "I think it's important that they can contribute at the highest level possible."
Light infantry from the 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, in Petawawa, Ont., will likely be the first in to Afghanistan. They are currently on one-year's rotation as Canada's rapid-reaction force.
"I guess it's fair to assume that chances are we would be the first ones to go," said Capt. Jean Marc Mercier, a brigade spokesman.
"We have not received any orders in our hands . . . We have the rapid-reaction unit here, yes."
Eventually, peacekeeping duties in Afghanistan are to be taken over by newly created Afghan police and military units, but that is expected to be several years away.
(CP) - About 2,500 Canadian Forces military personnel are deployed overseas:
Arabian Gulf: 950; participating in international campaign against terrorism.
Afghanistan: 1; UN assistance mission.
Bosnia-Herzegovina: 1,269; NATO stabilization force.
Golan Heights: 193; UN disengagement observer force.
Cyprus: 1; UN forces.
Jerusalem: 9; UN truce supervision organization.
Sinai: 30; multinational force and observers.
Sierra Leone: 5; UN mission.
Democratic Republic of the Congo: 8; UN organization mission.
Ethiopia and Eritrea: 6; UN mission.
Sierra Leone: 7; international military assistance training team.
On any given day, about 8,000 Canadian Forces members - one third of the deployable force - are preparing for, engaged in or returning from overseas missions. The Forces have a total of about 55,000 personnel.
© Copyright 2003 The Canadian Press