KABUL - There is no way for Canadian military personnel to work in Afghanistan without "significant risks," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said today in the wake of the death of a soldier in Kabul.
When it announced that Canada would end its combat mission this year and undertake a training mission until 2014, the Harper government insisted the troops would be "relatively safe," because instruction would take place behind the wire of fortified bases.
However any illusion of safety was shattered yesterday when a suicide bomber killed Master Cpl. Byron Greff and 16 other people.
Kabul has become an increasing focus for spectacular Taliban attacks, including a 20 hour shoot-out near NATO's main headquarters and the U.S. embassy last month — a gunfight that involved Canadian troops who had just arrived at Camp Eggers in a convoy.
Harper, speaking today after the conclusion of the Commonwealth summit in Perth, Australia, said he was well aware from his own travels that nothing is safe in Afghanistan.
"I've always been clear there are still risks involved in this mission," Harper told Canadian reporters.
"Any mission in Afghanistan involves significant risk ... Any presence in Afghanistan, as I know from my own travel there, is fraught with risk, so there will remain risk to our defense personnel."
Harper added that "we hope, and expect, that casualties will be much significantly lower than they were under the previous mission."
Despite the setback, military observers and insiders said Canada's training mission in Afghanistan should not be derailed by this latest suicide bombing.
As tributes to Greff poured in, those familiar with the military said his death should not be used as ammunition against Canada's new Afghan army training mission, which involves 920 soldiers.
"Some people, especially critics, will react and say 'We told you so,' but let's just keep this thing in perspective," said retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie, now a military analyst.
While any death is one too many, he said the number of Canadian soldiers killed this year as a result of the military's operations in Afghanistan is dramatically lower than those killed during the previous years of the combat mission.
Greff, an Edmonton-based soldier with the 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, was taking a routine trip between training and headquarters bases in the Afghan capital of Kabul yesterday when a car packed with explosives rammed into a heavily armored NATO bus known as a Rhino. It had been escorted by two heavily armed patrol vehicles.
Five NATO soldiers, eight civilian contractors and four Afghans were killed in the blast, and scores of others were wounded.
Greff is the first Canadian to die in Afghanistan since the combat mission ended earlier this year.
His death brings the number of Canadian soldiers killed as a result of Canada's involvement in Afghanistan to 158.
"We will mourn the loss of our brother Byron but we will continue with the mission," Col. Pete Dawe, deputy commander for the Canadian training mission, said in a statement.
Dawe described Greff as accomplished and "extremely fit," a paratrooper as well as a member of his battalion's reconnaissance platoon.
Harper and the opposition leaders all offered their condolences to Greff's family.
"His life and death serves as an example of the bravery and outstanding dedication of Canadian Armed Forces members on this mission," Harper said in a statement yesterday.
Harper also stressed the government remains committed to the training mission and the "international goal of creating a lawful, democratic and self-sufficient Afghanistan." (Agencies)