Panel seen urging Afghan mission extension

Mon Jan 21, 2008 2:33pm EST
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By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - An independent panel is set to recommend on Tuesday that Canada extends its mission in Afghanistan by two years to 2011, a course of action that could bring down the minority Conservative government.

Canada has 2,500 troops in the southern city of Kandahar, a region where the Taliban are concentrated, and so far 77 members of the armed forces have died.

The mission is due to end in February 2009 and Ottawa will need to inform its NATO partners soon if it plans to pull out the soldiers. Recent polls show around half of Canadians think the troops should return on schedule.

Although Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants the troops to stay longer, all three opposition parties -- which together control a majority of seats in Parliament -- strongly dislike the idea of keeping soldiers in a combat zone.

Harper, who has promised a Parliamentary vote on the future of the mission, asked former Liberal deputy prime minister, John Manley, last October to make recommendations. Manley's report will be released at 9 a.m. on Tuesday.

Some of those interviewed by Manley, a strong supporter of the Canadian presence in Afghanistan, said they were sure he would urge that the mission continue but place more stress on training Afghan troops and less on fighting the Taliban.

Whether that would be enough to placate the opposition parties is yet to be seen. Harper could make the vote in Parliament a confidence measure and if he loses it, an election campaign would start immediately.

John McCallum, a senior legislator with the opposition Liberals, said Manley's report could trigger an election.   Continued...

<p>Canadian troops from the NATO-led coalition (R) and Afghan National Army soldiers head out into battle against Taliban insurgents during a combat operation in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan November 17, 2007. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly</p>