Canadian PM again hints at longer non-combat role in Afghanistan
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday parliamentary approval was not needed to extend Canada's Afghanistan mission, a further hint its troops could stay after next July's withdrawal deadline, Xinhua reported.
Harper, who has not officially responded to reports that 1,000 Canadian troops will stay in Afghanistan until 2014 as trainers, told reporters during the G20 summit in Seoul that assigning a training and technical mission, as opposed to a combat mission, was within the authority of the prime minister.
"My position is, if you're going to put troops into combat, into a war situation, I do think for the sake of legitimacy ... the government does require the support of Parliament," he said. "But when we're talking simply about technical or training missions, I think that is something the executive can do on its own."
Harper said he was open to a debate in the House of Commons if the other parties had something to add. But he said no vote was necessary.
Harper noted that the opposition Liberals had been in favor of extending the Afghan mission in a non-combat capacity that would include training.
However, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff replied Friday in Ottawa that his party had "had no contact" on the extension other than "a phone call or two" between Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and Liberal foreign affairs spokesman Bob Rae.
"Everybody wants to be sure the mission the government has defined is doable, is achievable," Ignatieff said. "We want to know what it costs. We want to know who we're doing this training with. We want to know what the objectives are."
New Democrats Party leader Jack Layton said MPs should get to vote on the issue and accused Harper of a flip-flop.
"Stephen Harper made a solemn commitment to bring the troops home next year, but he has again failed to live up to his words," Layton said in a statement. "We are demanding the prime minister bring this new extension to the House of Commons for public debate and a vote."
On Thursday, Harper said in Seoul he was convinced Afghans needed more training, in explaining his rationale for keeping Canadian troops in Afghanistan.
"I don't want to risk the gains that Canadian soldiers have fought for and that they have sacrificed in such significant numbers for by pulling out too early, if we can avoid that," he said, without offering specifics about numbers of troops.
Earlier this week, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported that Canada would keep up to 1,000 troops in Kabul as part of a plan to extend the country's non-combat mission in Afghanistan after 2011.
The CBC quoted senior government sources as saying that the troops, including 750 trainers and at least 200 support staff, would remain there until 2014, three years past the July 2011 withdrawal deadline set by the Canadian Parliament.
This is the first time specific numbers related to the proposed mission extension have been made public.
The latest official comment on the mission was by Defense Minister Peter MacKay, who said Sunday that the government was "contemplating" transitioning from a combat role to a non-combat, training role but did not offer exact numbers.
The CBC said Harper was expected to present details of the proposed plan to a summit of NATO heads of state and government in Lisbon, Portugal, on Nov. 19 and 20, adding that pressure was mounting from Canada's allies including the United States.
Canada, which joined NATO's coalition in Afghanistan in 2002, has 3,000 troops based there, mainly in the southern province of Kandahar and more than 150 have been killed.
Meanwhile, the United States is happy with the prospect of a troop extension by Canada.
The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley said his country was "grateful for Canada's ongoing contribution" to the mission in Afghanistan.
"We, the United States, have been encouraging a number of countries to add trainers to help with the development of Afghan national security forces," Crowley told reporters in Washington on Friday.
Facing increasing pressure to reduce the country's combat role in Afghanistan dramatically due to costs, U.S. President Barack Obama is to begin a review of the U.S. Afghan strategy next month.
There are about 100,000 American military personnel in Afghanistan.