KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Stephen Harper took one last tour of the war-torn Kandahar region on Monday as Canada prepared to leave its five-year war to begin training the Afghan army and police in quieter areas to the north.
The long, bloody fight to keep this parched, unyielding region from slipping back into the grasp of the Taliban has been Canada’s “great enterprise,” the prime minister told over 500 troops attending an evening barbecue at Kandahar Airfield.
“You have been courageous warriors, so you are also compassionate neighbours,” Harper said in thanking the troops for their service.
“You have done exceptionally well. On behalf of all Canadians, I salute you.”
Since the mission began in 2002, Canada has lost 156 soldiers, a diplomat and a journalist.
Harper painted the country’s often-searing experience in this opaque war in noble terms, saying the mission in Kandahar was launched with the best of intentions — not to conquer, nor to advance imperial ambitions.
“We do not covet what other nations possess and we do not make war to advance selfish or cynical ends.”
His speech was meant to wrap up the combat mission, which officially ends in July.
In it, Harper returned to the theme of terrorism and the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
“One might suppose that with all your sacrifice and the news of the killing of Osama bin Laden that the threat of terrorism has vanished,” said the prime minister, who was on his fourth visit to Afghanistan.
“Sadly, that would be a delusion. We cannot pretend that terrorism no longer threatens our world — or even our own country.”
In a muted declaration of victory, the prime minister said that while Afghanistan still has problems, it is no longer a training ground for international terrorism.
“The world came to Afghanistan because it was such a brutal place that it had become a threat to the entire world,” Harper told reporters. “Whatever the troubles and challenges that remain, Afghanistan is no longer a threat to the world.”
To underline his point, Harper dropped in by helicopter to Tarnack Farms, the former Afghan agriculture station that was turned into a terrorist training camp by al-Qaeda in the late 1990s.
It is also the site where the first Canadian soldiers to die in Afghanistan — four of them — were killed by friendly fire in 2002.
There is evidence the attacks of 9/11 were plotted there. Video footage shows bin Laden there talking to trainees, including some of the 9/11 hijackers. It was the Taliban government’s support of bin Laden that drew the U.S. into this wrecked country.
“The vicious Taliban regime bludgeoned its own citizens, but welcomed the world’s worst killers — men so immersed in their own evil that they believed their appalling ambitions to be nothing less than the will of God,” Harper reminded the soldiers.
Tarnack Farms is now a wheat field, where farmers experiment with different types of irrigation. Harper’s visit, one of three stops he made outside the main base Monday, was designed to highlight the progress Canada has made to turn the country around.
Harper walked through the field as a ring of armoured vehicles and soldiers stood by. Picking up a blade of wheat, he remarked that it reminded him of Saskatchewan. He also briefly met a local farmer — the only Afghan he came into contact with in public all day.
His speech and the wreath-laying at the headquarters memorial took place not far from the spot at the airfield where more than five years ago he declared Canada would never “cut and run” from Kandahar.
He used the occasion Monday to highlight development accomplishments, including refurbishment of a dam, school reconstruction and polio vaccinations.
There was no mention that a number of Ottawa’s projects will be handed over to the Americans, who now run the provincial reconstruction base in Kandahar city.
The prime minister also used the occasion to promote the coming training mission based in Kabul, where the first boots hit the ground Monday.
The headquarters that will run the 950-man operation was officially opened over the weekend. Roughly a third of the contingent of trainers, advisers and staff are already in the country and more will follow in waves until November.
Earlier in the day, Harper also visited a forward operating base deep in the restive Panjwaii district where the Canadian army is preparing to end combat operations and hand its myriad of outposts and fortified positions over to U.S. troops.
He swooped in aboard a Canadian CH-47D helicopter to Sperwan Ghar, scene of countless battles with the Taliban.
It was a whirlwind visit conducted under high security and with armed CH-146 Griffon helicopters buzzing overhead.
From a post high above the district, Harper looked over a newly finished road that military officials told him was both an economic and security boon to the community.
The new road drove a “dagger in the Taliban’s heart,” said Gen. Walter Natynczyk, the chief of the defence staff. It has given locals a safer and faster route to market.
The thoroughfare runs through a region known as the Horn of Panjwaii, a notorious insurgent redoubt throughout Canada’s time in the province.
It has been brought somewhat under NATO’s heel with the influx of thousands of U.S. troops.
Violence in Kandahar appears to have levelled off, but security in the outlying districts remains tenuous.
The point was driven home when the Taliban tried to disrupt the official opening of the road last week by firing on the outpost that hosted the event.
Harper said Canadians had a right to be proud of what they’ve accomplished because the troops held their ground and set the conditions for development that will improve Afghans’ lives.
Harper was joined by three hockey players _ Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames and Canadian Women’s Olympic gold medalists Jayna Hefford and Marie-Philip Poulin. The trio signed autographs, handed out t-shirts to Canadian troops and took part in a BBQ with the soldiers at Kandahar Air Field.