Canadian troops to stay in Afghanistan

OTTAWA (AFP) — Canada’s parliament voted on Thursday to extend its 2,500-strong troop deployment in volatile southern Afghanistan to 2011, as long as NATO allies back them up.

Lawmakers voted 198 to 77 to keep Canadian battalions in Kandahar for another three years, provided NATO sends 1,000 reinforcements, drones and helicopters to bolster Canada’s force now on the ground, as requested.

Otherwise, Canada will withdraw next year at the end of its current mandate.

The outcome of the vote was closely watched by NATO countries, concerned that if Canada rejected an extension of its military mission, an allied exodus of Afghanistan could follow.

And failure in Afghanistan could jeopardize the alliance itself, officials have warned.

“We need one partner … that will be able to work with us in the south … without any caveats,” Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier said late Wednesday, describing the next challenge for Canada.

“Who is going to give us troops, who is going to be our partner, I don’t know that, but I’m optimistic because it’s important for the credibility of the (NATO) organization,” he told reporters.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization meets next in Bucharest, Romania in April.

“I hope that in the coming days or weeks we’ll find this partner because at the end (of the day), it’s not Canada’s need, it’s NATO’s need,” said Bernier. “If we don’t succeed in the south we won’t be able to succeed in Afghanistan.”

Canadian media also reported that the lead Canadian with UN operations in Afghanistan, Christopher Alexander, would stay on as the UN chief’s special adviser there.

Canada is battling Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan’s volatile south as part of the 50,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Like a dozen countries represented in the Kandahar and neighboring Helmand provinces, where opium cultivation is flourishing, Canada is taking heavy casualties that are feeding public dissatisfaction at home.

Since 2002, 80 Canadian soldiers and a senior diplomat have died in roadside bombings and in melees with the insurgents.

The main contributors to post-Taliban Afghanistan — notably Britain and the United States — have called for more “burden-sharing” in the grueling fight against the rebels.

The United States has already pledged an additional 2,200 soldiers and aircraft to this effort and 1,000 military trainers to help build up the Afghan army to eventually take over security duties, for deployment next month.

NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has said that ISAF has swollen by 8,700 soldiers over the past year and he was confident of more support in the coming year.

But, so far, only France and Poland have hinted to Ottawa they may send more help.

Former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley, who headed a panel of experts who recommended in January that Canada prolong its Afghanistan mission, said Tuesday the 1,000 additional troops called for in the panel’s report are only the “minimum” needed.

“Obviously if there were more, that would make it that much more likely that the mission could succeed,” he said.

The mission extension itself was opposed by the New Democrat and Bloc Quebecois, egged on by peace activists chanting from the parliamentary public gallery as the vote unfolded: “End it, don’t extend it.”

Had they succeeded in defeating the motion, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government would have collapsed and Canada would be plunged into an election as early as April, with uncertain consequences for the mission.

But the main opposition Liberals sided with the government, once its demands to emphasize development and diplomacy over hunting insurgents were met.

“I think it’s a bipartisan consensus … which is a very important signal to come from the parliament of Canada,” Defense Minister Peter MacKay declared after the vote. “I know it will be well-received by our NATO allies.”

Bernier at his side echoed: “We now have a mission that’s not a Conservative or a Liberal mission, but a Canadian mission.”

New Democrats leader Jack Layton lamented that MPs had “rejected a road to peace.”

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