Canada looks to 2011 Afghanistan combat mission end date

OTTAWA (AFP) – The government of Canada put forth a motion Friday to keep its 2,500 troops in Afghanistan to fight insurgents and train the Afghan army until the end of 2011, risking snap elections. However, the plan is dependent on NATO sending 1,000 additional troops to team up with the Canadians in volatile Kandahar province — the birthplace of the Taliban.

As well, Canada’s allies must commit for its use in the field medium lift helicopters and unmanned surveillance aircraft.

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Conservative House leader Peter Van Loan said parliamentarians would have a choice to either “strengthen the military mission in Afghanistan or abandon the commitment we made to the people of Afghanistan and our international allies.”

“The objective is to shift more and more responsibility to the Afghan army as they develop the ability to perform that role,” he said.

“The objective is to be able to leave in 2011.”

If the minority government were to lose the “confidence” motion to extend the troop deployment, it would plunge the country into early general elections.

Thursday, Defense Minister Peter MacKay said in Vilnius upon arriving at an informal two-day NATO defense ministers’ meeting Ottawa’s demand for an extra 1,000 troops alongside Canadian forces in Kandahar was “not a negotiable item.”

Canada, Great Britain and The Netherlands have the largest troop numbers as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan’s volatile south, dotted with Taliban strongholds.

Since 2002, 78 Canadian soldiers and a senior diplomat have died in roadside bombings and in melees with the insurgents.

Last month, a report by a committee led by former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley urged Canada to keep its troops in Afghanistan only if bolstered by additional NATO troops.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he accepted the recommendations, and on Friday assigned his top ministers to form a task force on Afghanistan to “respond directly” to the report.

The committee’s mandate is “to consider diplomatic, defense, development and security issues related to CanadaÂ’s mission in Afghanistan,” Harper said in a statement.

Stephane Dion, leader of the main opposition Liberal Party, which is tied with the Conservatives in the latest polls, said this week he would entertain the idea of a longer mission only if it meant a “non-combat role” for Canadian troops.

“We want to continue with a development, security and military role in Afghanistan. But we think the mission has to change,” explained deputy Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.

He promised to narrow that with “very detailed, very comprehensive” amendments to the government’s motion in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, the New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois have said they want Canada’s soldiers to return home at the end of their current mandate in February 2009.

Van Loan told reporters a vote on the motion is expected “sometime in the month of March,” before NATO talks in Bucharest, Romania in April.

And he suggested the government would “consider” opposition amendments to the draft motion.

But he added, “If the other parties have determined that they aren’t prepared to support this motion, then we will be in an election campaign.

Obviously, it will be an election campaign that will settle this question.” Ignatieff commented: “Canadians don’t want an election on Afghanistan.

We (Liberals) don’t either because I feel, as a patriotic Canadian, very uneasy about going to the country (to ask for a mandate) while we’ve got troops in the field.”

If the motion is passed, lawmakers would have a next chance to review the mission in 2011, “with sufficient lead time,” Van Loan said.