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Harper backs Manley report push to extend Afghan mission
Photo   Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper listens to a question during a news conference in Ottawa on Monday.
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DARREN YOURK
Globe and Mail Update

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has accepted the recommendation made in the Manley commission report to extend Canada's mission in Afghanistan if NATO allies help reinforce the effort.

The comments came as Mr. Harper made his first official remarks on the report issued last week by the blue-ribbon panel headed by the former foreign affairs minister.

The report said the Canadian mission in Afghanistan should not arbitrarily end in February of 2009, but the conditions for the continued presence of Canadian troops in the dangerous southern part of the country must be clearly dictated to NATO allies.

“The government accepts the panel's specific recommendation of extending Canada's mission in Afghanistan if, and I must emphasize if, certain conditions are met,” Mr. Harper said.

“That is, the securing of partners in Kandahar province with additional combat troops and equipment capabilities. In other words, while the case for the Afghan mission is clearly compelling, the decision to allow our young men and women in uniform to continue to be in harm's away demands the responsibility to give them a strong chance of success.”

Mr. Harper said his government will launch a diplomatic effort before the April meeting of NATO heads of government in Bucharest to meet those conditions. At some point this spring, the government will introduce a motion seeking the support of the House of Commons for the mission, which is set to end in February 2009.

“As I said the last time we attended a NATO meeting, I did think NATO's future credibility and effectiveness did hinge on the effectiveness of this mission,” he said. “I don't think there is any way for any NATO country to get around that fact.”

The Manley commission report said at least 1,000 more soldiers from some other NATO country are needed to reinforce Canada's efforts. The panel rejected all four options proposed by the Conservative government for Canadian Forces in Afghanistan because each entailed a pull-out of Canadian troops starting in February, 2009. It instead argued for an indefinite extension that would see the Canadian Forces gradually refocus on reconstruction and then withdraw as Afghans are able to do their jobs.

“The panel has made a clear case that there cannot be a definitive timeline placed on when NATO will have finished the job in Afghanistan and when Afghans are able to take responsibility for their own security, and we agree,” Mr. Harper said. “However, Canada's contributions should be reviewed at a minimum in the context of progress on the benchmarks the panel has advocated and within two to three years time.”

The report, which found security in Kandahar is deteriorating despite the efforts of 2,500 members of the Canadian Forces who are stationed there, also set the purchase of medium-lift helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles as a condition for the mission's continuation.

The government has already placed its order for helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles and is working with allies to secure them quickly, said Mr. Harper.

The Manley commission report boils down to two choices for Canada, the Prime Minister said: “We do everything better, we do everything right, or we don't do it.”

“We can't do a half a mission that might not succeed,” Mr. Harper said.

The panel also argued that successive governments have failed to adequately explain to Canadians why Canada is in Afghanistan – or what the troops are doing there – and calls for the government to have a more balanced communications strategy. Mr. Harper himself should take a lead on the file, the panel said.

The Prime Minister said Monday he takes that criticism seriously.

“This is an extremely difficult mission. We don't believe it is perfect and never have,” he said. “There has been no issue that has caused me as Prime Minister more headaches, and quite frankly more heartache, than this particular mission. I don't think that's going to change in the near future. We accept the judgment that there are several things that could be done better. In the case of most of these things, I think the panel would also acknowledge the government has taken steps.”

Mr. Harper said the very nature of the Afghan mission makes it hard to communicate to Canadians.

“A robust military mission where there are casualties is never going to be easy to communicate and it is never going to be all that popular to communicate,” he said. “That's the reality of the situation. We do accept the criticisms, and we're looking to improve on that and several other fronts.”

The Prime Minister suggested one step his government will take is making military and foreign affairs officials available to the public and press to discuss the Afghan mission on a more regular basis.

Mr. Harper refused to comment directly when pressed by reporters to discuss the government's handling of the suspension of detainee transfers to Afghan jails, saying it was a matter of national security.

“We are not going to publicly discuss how many Afghan prisoners we have — and where they are,” he said. “These are details of military operations and we are not going to answer such questions.”

The detainee issue was the hot topic of conversation during Question Period Monday, most notably the fallout from last week's revelation from government lawyers that Canadian troops stopped transferring prisoners to Afghan jails on Nov. 6, a day after officials heard a credible allegation of torture.

Opposition members took issue with Mr. Harper and his senior ministers never mentioning the transfer halt, despite repeated questions in the Commons.

“The Minister of Defence was actually in Afghanistan the very day the transfers stopped, and yet the Prime Minister and his ministers mislead the House and Canadians for three months,” Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said. “Why did the Prime Minister hide the truth from Canadians?”

Mr. Harper called the allegation completely false.

“The truth of the matter is that what the government revealed in November was the fact that there was credible evidence of a particular case of abuse,” he said. “The government doesn't reveal the cases where there is no abuse because those are simply matters of military operation. The Leader of the opposition had that information himself, and understood it wasn't to be revealed.”

With files from Gloria Galloway and Campbell Clark


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