Harper sees Afghanistan in a very difficult situation

Thu Dec 20, 2007 5:12pm EST
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By David Ljunggren and Randall Palmer

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Afghanistan is in a "very, very difficult situation," in part because the international community wasted years before trying to stamp out the Taliban across the country, says Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Canada has 2,500 troops in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar on a mission that is due to end in early 2009. Harper strongly defended the troops but conceded the mission to stabilize the country was going more slowly than expected.

"When I say progress is slow and uneven and at times discouraging, it's not because our guys aren't doing a terrific job. They really are. It's a very, very difficult situation," he told Reuters in an interview this week.

Harper said that while the 2001-02 international mission to expel the Taliban from government succeeded, no attempt was made subsequently to pacify the entire country.

"That effort, unfortunately, did not begin until three to four years later so by the time our allies and ourselves went out into the countryside, the process of the Taliban rebuilding had begun," he said.

"Ever since we actually finally got out to Kandahar ... we've had to now deal with the reality that the Taliban had already reengaged and begun to rebuild in those areas and (it was) a missed opportunity, I suppose, from about 2002 to 2005. But that's the way it happened and now we have to manage it."

The interview took place on Tuesday but at the request of his office it was embargoed until Thursday.

Opinion polls show Canadians are deeply split over the mission. Two of the three opposition parties want the troops back on schedule in February 2009, while the third insists they should return immediately.   Continued...

<p>Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during an interview at 24 Sussex Drive, his official residence, in Ottawa December 18, 2007. Picture taken December 18, 2007. REUETRS/Chris Wattie</p>