Blair urges NATO unity amid Afghan friction

TORONTO – Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Thursday that NATO must challenge its enemies in Afghanistan firmly and in a united way, despite recent reports of friction among Western countries.

Blair urged an audience in Canada — which is deeply split on its combat role battling Taliban militants in Afghanistan — that it and other NATO members “have got to take a decision on this global fight on terrorism.”

“Our determination to fight can’t be in inverse relationship to theirs,” he said.

Blair’s comments come just days after Canada’s death toll in southern Afghanistan rose to 77, and amid reports of discontent between the United States and its NATO allies.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was quoted on Wednesday in a U.S. newspaper criticizing NATO’s counterinsurgency abilities. But Washington moved quickly to smooth any ruffled allied feathers.

Gates called Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay to say the Los Angeles Times took his quotes out of context, and on Thursday he denied friction among members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Blair, who was prime minister when Britain sent troops into Afghanistan, was asked for some good news about the mission which many Canadians believe saddles Canada with a disproportionate amount of the combat burden.

“I know it’s very uncomfortable to engage our armed forces … but whatever your politics you should be immensely proud of the Canadian troops,” Blair told the audience in Toronto.

The Canadian portion of the mission is based in the volatile region of southern Afghanistan around Kandahar, and the report quoting Gates was met with surprise.

A poll this week showed 47 percent of Canadians want the troops brought back from Afghanistan as soon as possible. It also showed 17 percent want troops to continue in their combat role, and 31 percent said the forces should remain in Kandahar but turn over the combat role to another NATO country.

“For all their feudal ideology, they are actually quite sharp on how … our media works,” Blair said of Taliban militants. “They know the impact a vision of carnage has on our television screens.

“Our enemy thinks they can outlast us.”

Blair, who is now acting as a peace envoy to the Middle East, stoked speculation late last week that he would run to be the first president of the European Union by praising the bloc in a speech in France.

When Frank McKenna, the former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, asked Blair on Thursday whether he would consider the job, Blair said: “I’m happy doing what I’m doing.”

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