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OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Taliban may have mounted suicide attacks on Canadian troops this week expressly to dissuade Parliament from extending the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, Canada's outspoken top soldier said on Friday.
Chief of the defense staff Gen. Rick Hillier also said it was important for the Canadian Forces to be given a clear mandate for its future role in Afghanistan as soon as possible.
"We are, in the eyes of the Taliban, in a window of extreme vulnerability. The longer we go without that clarity, with the issue in doubt, the more the Taliban will target us as a perceived weak link," Hillier said in a speech.
He said he could not exclude the idea that Taliban strikes this past week were designed to frighten Canada out of prolonging its 2,500-strong mission beyond the current expiry date of February 2009.
"Certainly there's a perception out there that the Taliban will try to take advantage of the debate back here and will try to prevent a cohesive mission," he said.
All three opposition parties had opposed an extension of a combat mission in the violent southern part of the country, but the minority Conservative government has now reached a deal with the main opposition Liberal Party to set a fixed end date of July 2011.
However, Parliament will not vote on that compromise until next month. It is theoretically possible that the government could fall in the meantime over the federal budget it will introduce on February 26.
With little Liberal appetite for triggering an election, that scenario looks increasingly unlikely but if the government were to fall, this would prevent parliamentary approval of the Afghan extension and it would then become an election issue.
Liberal leader Stephane Dion made clear on Friday that he did not want to topple the government over whatever small differences he might have with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the Afghan motion.
"I would prefer not to have Afghanistan as a trigger for an election," he told reporters in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Harper wants to be able to present a final decision on Canada's role in Afghanistan to NATO's April 2-4 summit in Bucharest.
Canada is making any extension conditional on NATO securing a battle group of about 1,000 troops to work alongside Canadians in Kandahar.
That appears likely to be secured, according to the head of NATO's military committee, Canadian Gen. Ray Henault.
"I can tell you here today that I am confident that NATO nations will come to the assistance of Canada, will source the additional personnel requirements that Canada has called for in the south," Henault said in a separate speech to the Conference of Defence Associations.
A further Canadian condition that its troops get helicopter and unmanned aerial support by next February also appeared likely to be met.
"Within days, I think you'll hear about it," Hillier told reporters.
The helicopters at least will be on a temporary basis. Hillier voiced a preference for Boeing Co Chinooks, since they would mesh with longer-term government plans to take permanent delivery of 16 Chinooks.
Poland also announced this month it would make two helicopters available to Canadian troops in Kandahar.
Editing by Peter Galloway