KANDAHAR // Canada ended its combat mission in Afghanistan yesterday, closing the curtain after nine years and the death of 157 soldiers, saying it was "extremely proud" of gains made against the Taliban.
The departure of nearly 3,000 troops, who took on some of the heaviest fighting in the southern province of Kandahar, comes as Western forces begin to announce gradual drawdowns of troops ahead of a full withdrawal in 2014.
Canada spent more than US$11 billion (Dh40.4bn) on the war. Now, with popular support sapped at home, most of the nearly 3,000 Canadian soldiers, based mainly in the dangerous battleground of Kandahar, have packed up and gone home. They leave behind a number of soldiers to dismantle the Kandahar base.
A change-of-command ceremony was held at Kandahar airfield to mark the formal end of combat operations, although hundreds of other troops are being sent to work in a training role in the Afghan capital.
Afghan, Canadian and American national anthems were played to a small group of soldiers from each country, before commanders addressed the crowd and formally handed control of the mission to the United States.
Brigadier General Dean Milner, head of the Canadian combat mission, said in his speech to the assembled troops: "Over the years Canadians, both military and civilian, have made the ultimate sacrifice.
"All of these comrades would be proud to know of your accomplishments. Although there is still work to do, [we] are extremely proud of what has been accomplished."
Canadian soldiers first deployed to Afghanistan in early 2002, several months after a US-led invasion of the country to remove the Taliban following the September 11 attacks. Canada's most recent combat role before that was half a century earlier, in the Korean War.
Public opposition to the war in Canada has grown, with a poll earlier this year by Vision Critical/Angus Reid indicating that 63 per cent of Canadians opposed it, up from 47 per cent in 2010.
The Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, first pledged in 2008 that troops would leave this year.
After US forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May, Mr Harper said he believed Afghanistan was "no longer a source of global terrorism".
A separate Canadian training mission involving 950 troops will work in Kabul with Afghan security forces.
Canada will also continue to give aid to Afghanistan, with its overall involvement between now and the end of 2014 expected to cost around $700 million a year.
In addition to the deaths of the 157 soldiers, which included four female troops, one Canadian journalist and a diplomat also died.