Canada Afghan mission conditional on NATO build-up

Canada will pull out of Afghanistan next year unless NATO sends more troops, but the government would prefer to extend the mission beyond the current withdrawal date of February 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Monday.

Harper said the Conservative government accepted last week’s broad recommendations of an independent panel on extending Canada’s 2,500-strong military mission in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.

The panel said Canada should leave Kandahar unless NATO sent in an extra 1,000 soldiers to allow Canada’s contingent to focus on training Afghan troops and unless it acquired medium helicopters and unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicles.

“We accept the analysis that for this mission to go forward, achieve its objectives and be successful, we do have the need for a substantial increase in combat troops, and particular needs in terms of military equipment,” Harper told a news conference.

“Both of those recommendations have to be fulfilled or Canada will not proceed with the mission in Afghanistan. We believe these are essential to our success,” he said.

The Conservatives hold a minority of seats in the House of Commons and require the support of at least one opposition party to pass legislation. One party wants the troops out now, while the other two have said soldiers should stay longer only if their combat role fighting Taliban militants were ended.

Harper said he had already spoken to Stephane Dion, the leader of the main opposition Liberal Party, and would ask the House of Commons this spring to approve the way forward on the Afghanistan mission.

He declined to say whether he would make this a matter of confidence, saying his strong preference was to come up with a motion that would win the support of the House.

So far, 78 Canadian soldiers and a diplomat have died since Ottawa deployed troops to Afghanistan in 2002.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren and Randall Palmer)