BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Canada’s prime minister expressed confidence on Wednesday that NATO allies would send the reinforcements needed for Canadian troops to stay in Afghanistan despite uncertainty over a French deployment.
But Stephen Harper acknowledged French President Nicolas Sarkozy had made “no iron-clad” commitment to NATO on how many troops would be forthcoming, and that it was unclear when any troop pledges would be confirmed.
“I am optimistic ... whether it is at this summit or in the weeks to come. We’ve had good discussions with allies,” Harper told a conference ahead of a NATO summit in Bucharest. “We are very confident.”
Canada has threatened to pull its troops out next year unless NATO allies come up with 1,000 soldiers to reinforce them.
Diplomats had expected Sarkozy to offer at the Bucharest summit to send such a number to eastern Afghanistan, which would allow U.S. troops there to redeploy alongside the Canadians.
Harper said that immediate new troop commitments had not been made at the 2006 NATO summit in Riga but that over the next two years twice as many troops were committed to the dangerous Kandahar region.
He acknowledged that Canada’s self-imposed deadline looms more quickly, as the country has said it would pull out in February 2009 if it did not receive reinforcements by then.
NATO diplomats see it as unimaginable that the United States would not step up to the plate somehow, particularly as it was establishing infrastructure in Kandahar for its short-term deployment of 3,500 Marines.
“The common feeling here is they’re going to leave something behind,” one official said.
Canada has also has said it needs new helicopters to be able to stay, but diplomats said that requirement appeared to be largely met for now by Poland offering six helicopters.
Canada is also seeking to accelerate the purchase of its own helicopters.
Sitting next to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Harper said he believed Afghanistan’s fledgling army would by 2011 be able to take over leadership of military operations in the violent southern province patrolled by Canada’s 2,500 troops.
“President Karzai tells us this can be done in Kandahar. That is what we are working for,” Harper said, noting that such an objective was part of a resolution passed by the Canadian Parliament.
“We’re making progress, but we have not yet made progress to the point where the situation would be irreversible if we were suddenly out,” he added.
Additional reporting by Mark John, Editing by Timothy Heritage