Canada set to join other NATO countries in providing funding Afghan military

CHICAGO – Canada is preparing to announce ongoing funding for the Afghanistan military in line with contributions already pledged by other NATO countries.

How much Canada will cover of the estimated $4.1 billion annual bill for the Afghan military post-2014 is expected to be announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Monday at the close of the NATO meetings in Chicago.

The 28 member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are meeting for two days with the future of Afghanistan at the top of their agenda.

At issue is both NATO’s exit strategy from the decades-long war but also what happens afterwards.

While the meetings weren’t intended to be a pledging conference, NATO’s secretary-general said late Sunday he is optimistic that the required total needed to sustain Afghan’s military will be reached.

“It is a responsibility for the whole of the international community but I’m sure that NATO allies and (International Security Assistance Force) partners will pay a fair share of the overall bill,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at a closing press conference.

“We are on the right track.”

While the NATO-led combat mission in Afghanistan ends in 2014, Rasmussen reiterated the alliance’s commitment to continuing training the Afghan military after that date.

The original plan had been for a security force that numbered 352,000 strong, but the size has been reduced to around 230,000 in recognition of the cost to maintain it.

Countries including Australia, Germany and the U.K. have already made financial pledges to that end and media reports have suggested that Canada has been asked to contribute $125 million.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay hinted Sunday that the money will form the extent of Canada’s commitment to the country once Canadian military trainers leave in 2014.

He told reporters covering the Chicago meetings that a key element of discussions has been the sustainability of Afghan security forces once the NATO-led mission there ends.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean troop contributions or trainers,” he said.

“That means giving the Afghans the resources that they need to continue to make progress and hold the fort.”

But he wouldn’t elaborate, saying only that the prime minister will made an announcement on Monday.

Canada pulled its combat troops from Afghanistan in the summer of 2011, leaving behind a team of 950 soldiers to help train the Afghan security force.

Those soldiers are expected to be fully out of the country in 2014, in concert with the final pull out of all NATO combat troops.

Rasmussen said Sunday that he expects the Afghan military to be able to take over security in the country in 2013 but NATO forces will remain combat ready until the end of 2014.

Newly-elected French President Francois Hollande has already declared that he will withdraw all French combat troops from Afghanistan by year’s end, but German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle cautioned that “withdrawal competition” among countries with troops in Afghanistan could strengthen the terrorist threat.

And German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany stood “very firmly” behind the principle of “in together, out together.”

For his part, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said his country welcomes the end of the war “so that Afghanistan is no longer a burden on the shoulder of our friends in the international community, on the shoulders of the United States and our other allies.”

Earlier Sunday, Fogh Rasmussen said he wanted Canada’s continued involvement.

“I would hope Canada would be in a position to contribute to the training mission after 2015,” he said on his way into the meetings Sunday, adding he also respected that it was a decision for Canada to make.

MacKay said Canadians are proud of what’s been achieved in Afghanistan, pointing to literacy rates and education levels as indicators of progress.

And while he acknowledged the sacrifice that’s also been made _ including the lives of 162 Canadians _ he said it’s important for Canada to remain involved.

“We don’t want to see Afghanistan ever deteriorate into a situation where they are again an incubator and an exporter of terrorism,” he said.

“We also have a broader responsibility, I would suggest, as a caring compassionate country to see the people of Afghanistan have hope, have a future.”

Nearly 3,000 members of NATO have been killed in Afghanistan since the conflict began and they were honoured Sunday prior to the start of the meetings.

As leaders prepared to take a break for summit talks for their traditional family photo, thousands of demonstrators upset with the war in Afghanistan, climate change and the erosion of union rights marched through downtown Chicago.

– with files from The Associated Press