Thursday, October 04, 2007

Canada Has 'Moral' Duty To Stay In Afghanistan

Canadian troops will likely remain in Afghanistan beyond February, 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday, characterizing the mission as a "moral responsibility" to the Afghan people, Canada's international allies and its own soldiers. Harper also gave his strongest suggestion to date that he would be willing to fight an election over the continuation of the mission, as he served notice to his political opposition, in particular Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, not to engage in "unwise politics" or "uninformed political sentiment" in the upcoming parliamentary debate on the future of the mission in Afghanistan. "We believe we have a moral responsibility," Harper said in a rare formal news conference. "It's not a matter of just playing to the polls." The prime minister emphasized that fulfilling Canada's international obligations, both to the people it is trying to help in Afghanistan as well as its international partners in NATO, trumps domestic political considerations. But, he conceded: "We've also communicated clearly to our allies that future deployment will be dependent on getting that parliamentary support." Harper said his government's upcoming speech from the throne will make the mission one of its main priorities.Canada's national security interests are inherently tied to the fate of the Afghan people in Kandahar, and Canada can't withdraw its troops until the war-torn country can defend itself without international help. "Can I say that we're ready to leave cold turkey in February, 2009? I think it's hard to imagine," Harper said. The Liberals and Bloc Quebecois are essentially calling for an end to combat operations in southern Afghanistan by February 2009, while the NDP wants the troops brought home immediately. Canada currently has about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. "Anything we put forward in a speech from the throne in a confidence vote are things that we are prepared to run on [in an election] and prepared to defend in front of the Canadian population," Harper said. "I believe strongly that anyone who wants to possess the office of prime minister has to be prepared to make those kinds of decisions based on the long-term best interests of the country," he added. "Hopefully this debate won't simply be: Will we stay after 2009 or do we pull out after 2009? But the debate will be: What are the options in terms of staying, in terms of leaving or of doing some things and not others? What are the options? What are the upsides or the downsides? And what are the costs and what are the demands on the military?" Harper said the government also owes a debt to the families of fallen soldiers, which have told him not to withdraw the troops before the job is done. "We have the responsibility to honour and respect their sacrifices," he said.