Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Liberals back Afghan mission, double talk ...

Liberals back Afghan mission until 2009
CAMPBELL CLARK 21/02/07 Globe and Mail

The federal Liberals will support Canada's NATO mission remaining in southern Afghanistan until 2009 but call for another country to take over afterward, according to sources in the party.

Split between hawks and doves, Stéphane Dion's opposition party has hammered out its long-promised common-ground position that includes signalling to allies that Canada will give up the leadership of the Kandahar-based NATO mission at the end of its current tour, two years from now.

When he took the reins of the Liberal Party in December, Mr. Dion said he would have little patience for a rising Canadian death toll unless the mission achieved better results. But he also faced a faction of MPs, including deputy leader Michael Ignatieff, who adamantly oppose early withdrawal.

Tomorrow, Mr. Dion will deliver an address in Montreal outlining his party's new position. Liberal sources said the key elements have been hammered out in meetings of MPs over several weeks.

Canadian troops moved from Kabul, the Afghan capital, to the more dangerous Kandahar province at the beginning of 2006, where a reconstituted Taliban has conducted a series of bloody offensives. Forty-three Canadians have been killed since the Canadian military deployed to Afghanistan in early 2002.

Last spring, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper extended the mission, initiated by the previous Liberal government, to February 2009. But some candidates then running for the Liberal leadership, including Mr. Dion, suggested Canada might consider withdrawing sooner.

Now, the Liberals have decided to back the current Kandahar mission until the end of that current deployment, hoping to avoid criticisms that they would abandon a Canadian international commitment.

They will also argue that the mission is misguided and losing support from Afghans, that the West should change its approach and that Canada should tell NATO to find another country to take over the mission in 2009.

However, one Liberal said that does not mean Mr. Dion will rule out a possible future role for Canadian troops in other parts of Afghanistan.

That position will allow the Liberals to criticize the Conservative government on its conduct of the Afghan mission, but might also reduce its impact as an issue differentiating the two parties in an election campaign. Now only the NDP is calling for early withdrawal.

In addition, the Liberals will propose changing Canada's approach to Afghanistan, including a bigger commitment to development aid, political efforts aimed at broadening the support of the Afghan government and combatting corruption, and dealing with the illegal opium-poppy crop that helps finance the Taliban.

The Liberals say public support for the mission is waning because the Conservatives have focused Canada's role too much on military efforts and not enough on diplomacy and development aid. The Conservative government has insisted it is doing both, but that it is impossible to deliver aid without securing a strife-torn region.

Many experts have recently called for a major increase in both troops and aid. In January, the United States and Britain announced increases in their troop contingents in the country, and U.S. President George W. Bush said he would seek an additional $10.6-billion over two years.