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Government 'reviewing' plan to cut danger pay for soldiers in Afghanistan

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OTTAWA - The Harper government is trying to navigate its way out of a political minefield, imploring a joint committee of federal officials to reverse a planned cut to danger pay for troops serving in Afghanistan.

The stipend was reportedly facing a reduction of more than 30 per cent, which would have meant nearly $500 a month less for roughly 920 soldiers based in Kabul, who are training Afghan forces.

The rationale for the initial decision, which was made by a joint committee of bureaucrats from National Defence and Treasury Board, was that Kabul is safer than Afghanistan's volatile south, where Canadian soldiers are no longer serving.

But in an exercise in damage control, officials from the prime minister's office on down, called Wednesday for the committee, which meets only four times a year, to convene again "as soon as possible" to reverse the decision.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay was unavailable, but Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney made it clear the governing Conservatives were not happy.

"This decision was not appropriate, and we are asking for this decision to be reviewed," he said Wednesday.

It is unclear when the committee will meet, or whether a reversal would come in time before the next pay period.

The decision to cut pay mystified opposition politicians, who said Kabul may not be the killing fields of Kandahar, but troops still face dangers.

The mountains east of Kabul continue to see sporadic fighting with insurgents, while the Afghan capital itself has been the subject of suicide attacks and ambushes led by the Haqqani Network, an ultra-violent terrorist group separate from the Taliban, but loosely affiliated with al-Qaida.

"Canadian soldiers are serving in a dangerous mission, regardless of what this minister thinks," said New Democrat MP Jack Harris.

One Canadian soldier — Master Cpl. Byron Greff — died in Kabul in October 2011 when a suicide bomber attacked a bus carrying NATO troops. Throughout Afghanistan, security remains fragile with western forces on guard against the ever-present danger of so-called insider attacks by disguised Taliban, or disgruntled Afghan troops.

"The Conservative government's decision to cut soldiers' danger pay is ethically wrong, downright mean and disloyal," said Liberal Senator Romeo Dallaire, a former major-general.

"Our troops left with an agreed-upon salary, including risk benefits for these missions, and now halfway through their deployment this government is making significant reductions to the income on which they and their families depend."

Since the end of the combat mission in Kandahar almost two years ago, there has been a rising chorus of complaints among soldiers and veterans that the federal government has begun to nickel-and-dime them on benefits and program entitlements.

The military ombudsman recently fought a public battle with both National Defence and Treasury Board over the rejection of compensation claims for soldiers who lose thousands of dollars in home equity when forced to sell their homes because of transfers.

There's also been criticism of how much the federal government spends to bury impoverished veterans.

All of these things have not gone unnoticed and could lead to an exodus, Dallaire warned.

"At a time when the serving veterans and their families are readjusting to a reasonably normal life in garrison, they are seeing the essential elements of quality of life programs being chopped piece by piece," he said in a statement.

"This will directly affect the operational effectiveness of the Forces, as it will cause significant attrition among soldiers still serving."

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