KANDAHAR AIR FIELD Canada may well stay in Afghanistan beyond its 2011 military mandate, said Defence Minister Peter MacKay today, as he left a NATO base in Afghanistan where Ottawa is planning to buy up hundreds more beds for next year.
As U.S.-led forces and the Taliban brace for what may prove the deadliest summer yet, Mr. MacKay said Canada's role is changing to delivering aid to city dwellers “rather than simply focusing on holding swaths of land.”
“I believe there are a number of roles Canada can play well into the future,” the minister said, capping off a three-day visit, but added that's subject to the will of the people. “We've said time and time we're going to respect Parliament's voice on this,” he said. “We can't come to Afghanistan and help them develop their democracy and not respect our own.”
Public documents tendered this month on a government website indicates Defence Construction Canada wants to buy 400 more beds at the Kandahar Air Field by next year, at a cost of $5-million, with an option to build 400 more. The documents don't state who the beds are for.
Under their current military mandate, which expires in two years, nearly 3,000 Canadians soldiers bunk down at this sprawling air base, now growing by leaps and bounds to accommodate an American surge. Thousands of U.S. soldiers are flooding into Kandahar and its environs, after U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to quell a growing Taliban insurgency with more firepower – and more aid.
During the past three years, Canada has tried to hold a sprawling, restive province with a rotating contingency of soldiers that amount to the size of one U.S. combat brigade. Outposts set up in rural regions outside Kandahar City have lately been pulled down as Canadian soldiers redeploy to major bases and to be stationed inside the city.
“Rather than simply trying to take property and hold it, we're trying to work into areas and bring that ‘whole-of-government' concentration,” said Mr. MacKay.
“The focus is on the population centres,” he said.
During his visit, the minister announced programs meant to thwart improvised insurgent bombs in Kandahar, as well as Canadian programs aimed at giving help to veterans.
He said Canada will continue to mentor Afghan police and soldiers, and “we're going to build the schools, provide the immunization programs, and work with organizations to get microfinance credit available.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper made similar remarks as he visited the base earlier this month.
Civilian casualties caused by U.S. air strikes are emerging a major irritant between Washington and Kabul, prompting local lawmakers to make noises about passing stricter rules-of-engagement for NATO forces.
Canada's Defence Minister says his officials can help cool down the tensions, before the issue boils over.
“First and foremost, Canada is not engaged in air strikes,” said Mr. MacKay. “We obviously take great pains not to have civilian casualties in any instance.”
“But,” he added, “can Canada be influential in these discussions at NATO? Absolutely.”
“Can we work close with our allies and with the Afghan government to play a positive role and ensure that everyone is engaged in these efforts to protect the public? Yes.”
Afghan authorities are claiming that more than 100 civilians were killed by U.S fighter planes this month in southwest Afghanistan, as the Taliban took refuge amongst villagers following a firefight.
This was not an isolated incident, and civilian casualties caused by both sides have been climbing.
Mr. MacKay did not criticize use of U.S. airpower and added that the Taliban “doesn't play by any rules of engagement.”
“This is a very insidious type of warfare the Taliban has engaged in” he said, adding they “deliberately try to place themselves in populations and use human shields.”