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PM sounds like defeatist, father of slain soldier says

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — The father of a Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan says he's upset that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called the Taliban insurgency there unbeatable, arguing it's bad for troop morale.

"I tell you, Mr. Harper sounded to me like a defeatist," Nova Scotian Jim Davis said. "For the Prime Minister of a country to do that, it just didn't make sense to me."

Corporal Paul Davis died in Afghanistan on March 2, 2006. Yesterday was the third anniversary of his death.

Mr. Davis said he was disheartened to hear Mr. Harper tell CNN in an interview broadcast March 1 that Canadian and other foreign armies can't beat the Taliban.

"Frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency," Mr. Harper told CNN, pointing to the long history of Afghan insurgencies successfully driving out invaders, including the Soviets in the 1980s and the British a century earlier.

"[From] my reading of Afghanistan history, it's probably had an insurgency forever, of some kind," Mr. Harper said.

To date, 108 Canadian soldiers have died in the Afghanistan war, where Canada's operational objectives, on paper at least, are supposed to include ending the insurgency.

The 2005 deal Canada signed with the Kabul government says Canadian military assistance is there to help "eliminate al-Qaeda, the Taliban, anti-coalition armed groups and any other insurgents threatening the security and stability of Afghanistan or international peace and security.

Opposition parties called the Harper statement on CNN an about-face, saying the Prime Minister has not talked as bluntly at home about the prospects for the Afghan war.

"This is, I think, the most emphatic declaration by ... this Prime Minister that we've seen [saying] there's no possibility of defeating the insurgency," Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said.

He said the Tories must now more clearly explain to Canadians how they're recasting the mission beyond combat and development projects, including what diplomatic efforts they're taking to address the source of insurgents in neighbouring Pakistan.

"It's very difficult to see how you can have a military victory over an adversary whose base is in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan. The base of the Taliban is in another country."

The Prime Minister's Office rejected the suggestion that Mr. Harper's comments are a departure from past policy. They said while he may have phrased it differently before, it's part of a rationale for transferring insurgency management to the Afghan government that the Tory Leader has discussed for months.

Canada is currently slated to withdraw its combat troops from Afghanistan in 2011.

Military analysts suggested Mr. Harper's comments - made on national U.S. television - were directed at the Obama White House rather than Canadians, saying he appeared to be trying to influence the direction the Democratic administration takes in Afghanistan. The new President is currently rethinking U.S. strategy for the region.

"I think Harper's laying down a marker that says we've got to get the aim of the operation clearly in mind ... that if we think we're going to win in the sense of beating the Japanese in the Second World War, forget it," Queens University Defence Management Studies chair Douglas Bland said.

Retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie said there's been a "subtle change" in Mr. Harper's message on Afghanistan. "He's too intelligent not to know the nuances."

Mr. MacKenzie added that he agrees there's no end possible for the battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan. "There's no victory in a counter-insurgency. There's no ticker-tape parade or signing of an armistice. Victory is leaving with a security apparatus that can control the insurgency."

Professor Bland said he believes those leading Canadians into battle in Afghanistan would concur.

"I don't know any Canadian officer of experience who wouldn't agree generally with what the Prime Minister is saying."

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