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.
The government favors extending the mission in one form of another on the grounds that Afghanistan will not be able to stand on its own feet by early 2009.
"We are making progress. I think frankly, if we were to go back to 2005 ... I would presume that progress is slower than we would have hoped," Harper said.
"Ultimately, where we need to make progress is not turning Afghanistan into (somewhere) as law abiding as (Ottawa). It's to really put in a situation where the Afghan government is capable of managing the security threats itself ... I think we're a couple of years away from being where we need to be."
In October, Harper named a five-member panel to review the future of the mission. He has pledged to let the House of Commons vote on the government's plans for the troops.
Since 2001, 71 Canadian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, the third highest toll, behind the United States and Britain, among the nearly 40 countries with troops there.
Editing by Peter Galloway