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Canada to shift Afghan combat mission to training

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Up to 950 Canadian troops will train Afghan army recruits from 2011 to March 2014, maintaining a particular focus on solving the “huge problem” of low literacy levels, the government said on Tuesday.

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Defense Minister Peter MacKay made the comments at a news conference to confirm that Ottawa will help train Afghan soldiers once Canada’s combat mission ends in 2011.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the training program last week, saying to leave Afghanistan now would run the risk of damaging the progress made so far.

The head of NATO’s training mission said last month the alliance was short of around 900 specialist instructors to help prepare Afghan forces. MacKay acknowledged many Afghan recruits could neither count nor read.

“There is still a huge problem in terms of illiteracy rates,” MacKay said. Canadian trainers already in place “are now focusing specifically on this issue of illiteracy, and education more broadly, in an effort to elevate their capacity”.

The focus on education is helping Afghan authorities cut desertion rates and make the forces more professional, MacKay added. He stressed the combat mission would end in 2011 and said the trainers would not be stationed in combat zones.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he warmly welcomed the decision.

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“This Canadian contribution of hundreds of trainers will help the Afghan security forces to more quickly become capable of securing their own country against terrorism and extremism,” he said in a statement.

President Hamid Karzai wants Afghan forces to take full security responsibility from 2014.

Canada has 2,900 soldiers based in the southern city of Kandahar, heartland of the Taliban. So far, 152 servicemen and women have died and polls show the majority of Canadians oppose the combat mission.

The new training mission is deeply unpopular with the left-leaning New Democratic Party, which noted that when Parliament extended the mission in 2008, it made clear that all troops should leave Afghanistan by the end of 2011.

New Democrat legislator Nathan Cullen said the government’s change of mind was “shocking and totally undemocratic. Harper gave his word that he’d bring the troops home.”

The training mission, as well as a three-year aid program, will cost C$700 million ($686 million) a year, MacKay said.

($1=$1.02 Canadian)

Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson