VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Canada has no plans to extend its military mission in Afghanistan past the planned 2011 pullout, even if there is pressure to deal with the worsening security situation, a senior government official said on Tuesday.
But Canada also acknowledged indirectly that security problems will likely continue after its combat forces leave, unveiling a new immigration program to aid Afghans whose lives would be in danger for having worked with Canadian troops during the mission.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper will meet this week with U.S. President Barack Obama, whose top military officer said on Tuesday that more troops will probably be needed to curb growing insurgent violence in Afghanistan.
Harper and Obama are expected to discuss Afghanistan, but Canadian Trade Minister Stockwell Day downplayed suggestions that Washington will pressure Ottawa to keep the troops in Afghanistan longer than now planned.
“To date, their understanding of our position is very clear,” Day told reporters in Ottawa where he released the latest quarterly report on the status of Canadian military and civilian projects in Afghanistan.
The report said Canada was making progress in efforts to rebuild Afghanistan’s education system, infrastructure and police training programs, despite “significant” security problems that continued to grow worse.
Canada has about 2,700 soldiers on the military mission in the Kandahar region, which has seen some of the worst fighting with Taliban forces. Public support for the mission has wavered as the death toll among military personnel climbs.
The Kandahar area has also seen serious allegations of fraud during the recent Afghan elections. Canada was monitoring the claims, but the fact the election happened at all was a sign of progress, Day said.
Ottawa also unveiled a temporary immigration program to help Afghans who face safety threats for having co-operated with Canadian operations, but would not qualify for entry into Canada under existing refugee plans.
Ottawa has an obligation to help protect Afghans who have risked their lives on Canada’s behalf, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said.
“So (the program) says, yes, the place continues to be dangerous. But it also says Canada is being fair and just to these people who have taken the risks for our country,” he told reporters.
Afghans who have worked for at least a year with the Canadian mission will be eligible to apply for relocation to Canada up until the mission ends in 2011, Kenney said.
The program will be similar to those already offered to Afghans by the United States and Britain, the government said.
Reporting by Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson