Canada army chief rejects noncombat Afghan mission

Fri Feb 1, 2008 3:44pm EST
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By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's top soldier, in a move sure to be appreciated by the minority Conservative government, dismissed on Friday proposals made by the main opposition party that the military mission in Afghanistan refrain from combat operations next year.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants Canada's 2,500 troops in the southern city of Kandahar to stay in Afghanistan beyond the scheduled end of their mission in February 2009.

The opposition Liberals -- who are keeping the government alive in Parliament -- say they will only back an extension if the troops focus solely on training Afghan troops. So far 78 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan.

General Rick Hillier, the blunt-spoken chief of the defense staff, told reporters there was no chance of the soldiers being able to avoid clashes with Taliban militants.

"If you're in Kandahar, you're going to be in combat operations ... the Afghan army is not yet capable enough to be able to handle security by itself," he said when asked about the Liberals' position.

"If you're there, you're going to be in the middle of a firefight ... This is the home of the Taliban."

His remarks are likely to put more pressure on Liberal leader Stephane Dion to change his position.

"With great respect to General Hillier, the overall direction of the mission is going to be determined by the government of Canada, and I presume the Parliament of Canada," said Bob Rae, the Liberals' foreign affairs spokesman.   Continued...

<p>Canada's Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier listens to Canadian troops from the NATO-led coalition at Ma'sum Ghar camp in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, October 24, 2007. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly</p>