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Canada could extend Afghan mission, PM signals

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May 23, 2007

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Canada could keep its military mission in Afghanistan beyond the scheduled February 2009 withdrawal date despite increasing pressure to bring the troops back on time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper indicated on Wednesday.

Harper made the comments during a surprise visit to Afghanistan, where 2,500 Canadian troops are based in the southern city of Kandahar.

Canada has lost 54 soldiers and a diplomat so far since sending troops to Afghanistan in 2002, most of the casualties coming last year in clashes with the Taliban.

“You know that your work is not complete. You know that we cannot just put down our arms and hope for peace,” Harper told a crowd of soldiers at an outdoor ball hockey rink at the Canadian military base.

“You know that we can’t set arbitrary deadlines and simply wish for the best. And you must also know that your hard work is making a real difference to real people and their families,” he said.

Extending the mission could trigger more political problems for the minority Conservative government, which is already embroiled in a scandal over whether it ignored evidence that detainees handed over to Afghan authorities could be tortured.

Two of the country’s three opposition parties — who together control a majority of seats in Parliament — want the troops back on schedule, while the third is demanding an immediate withdrawal.

Harper, who won a January 2006 election in part on a promise to increase defense spending, says his critics care more about the allegations of Taliban suspects than they do about Canada’s troops.

“Each of you stands among the greatest of your generation. You are Canada’s sons and daughters and your country, as much as this country, owes you a debt of gratitude and its unwavering support,” Harper told the soldiers.

The prime minister, making his second trip to Kandahar since taking power, signed hockey balls for the troops and posed for photographs before donning body armor and flying by helicopter to a forward operating base southwest of the city.

The official opposition Liberals said Harper’s remarks proved their assertion that the government had secretly planned all along to extend the mission beyond February 2009.

Critics say Canada’s contingent is spending too much time fighting the Taliban and not nearly enough on helping to rebuild the country.

“It is clear in our minds that this prime minister never had any intention of leaving in 2009 … it’s normal in an international mission to have an exit strategy,” said Liberal legislator Denis Coderre, a party defense spokesman.

Polls show Canadians are deeply divided over the wisdom of the mission.

Harper was in Kabul on Tuesday and handed out pencil cases to children in a school partially funded by Canadian aid.

“I’m not here because of the polls. I’m here because it’s the right thing to do,” he told reporters after talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

(With additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa)

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Written by afghandevnews

May 24, 2007 at 4:41 am

Posted in Security

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