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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay said on Monday that the rising cost of the country's military mission in Afghanistan was worth the expense, even though the economic crisis is starting to bite hard.
Skeptical opposition legislators grilled MacKay over why, at a time of big budget deficits and soaring unemployment, Ottawa was pouring billions of dollars into a combat mission that critics say shows few signs of success.
Last October, Parliament's budgetary officer said the mission could cost C$18 billion ($15 billion) if Canada's 2,700 troops stayed until the end of 2011 as planned.
"Afghanistan was the largest exporter of terror in our lifetime so our efforts there to bring about some semblance of security and democracy continue to be a very worthy cause," MacKay told reporters.
"Now that's costly. A military mission by its very nature is expensive ... but we are making gains," he said after testifying to Parliament's defense committee.
So far, 108 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan, where Taliban insurgents are making gains. Senior western officials openly admit the NATO mission is in trouble.
Late last month Canada's Conservative government, under pressure to tackle the deepening economic crisis, unveiled a stimulus laden budget that will rack up a deficit of C$64 billion over the next two fiscal years.
MacKay, who went to the committee to explain why he was requesting an extra C$441 million for the Afghan mission, faced some tough questions from opposition parliamentarians.
Claude Bachand of the Bloc Quebecois complained that successive defense ministers had requested a total of C$8.9 billion in extra spending on the mission since Canada first sent troops to Afghanistan in 2002. He also asked why so little money was being spent on reconstruction and development.
"It's not going very well in Afghanistan, we don't control the territory ... it's a kind of bottomless pit that Canada is pouring money into," he told MacKay. "As defenders of the taxpayer, we want to know where we're going with this."
Dawn Black of the left-leaning New Democrats said the escalating cost "was a huge issue for Canadians, particularly at a time of financial uncertainty across the country."
MacKay said the additional money was needed to protect soldiers carrying out an increasingly complex mission.
"We are succeeding. (Is it) at the rate we'd like? Perhaps not," he told Bachand, saying it was crucial to establish security before proper reconstruction could take place.
"Our preference would be to put all the money into reconstruction and development but if the Taliban are going to burn schools down as quickly as we build them ... we can't do those things until we get the security and peace in place," MacKay said.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson