Canada defends rising Afghan costs as crisis bites

Mon Feb 9, 2009 6:03pm EST
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By David Ljunggren

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.   Continued...