OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s minority Conservative government, bowing to a key opposition demand, said on Thursday its military mission in southern Afghanistan would end in 2011 and would not be extended.
The compromise with the main opposition Liberal Party made a new election over the issue much less likely.
“While reiterating our commitment to the U.N. mandate on Afghanistan, it affirms that our commitment is not open-ended,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in the prepared text of a speech to the Conference of Defense Associations.
The 2,500-strong mission in the violent southern Kandahar region is currently due to end in February 2009. The government had initially proposed extending this to 2011, at which time the mission would be reviewed.
The Liberals said this was unacceptable and demanded a fixed end date of February 2011. An amended motion presented by the government on Thursday committed Canada to notifying NATO that its presence in Kandahar would end as of July 2011 and troops would be redeployed from the south by December 2011.
Parliament is due to hold a confidence vote on the motion in March.
“It seems clear that we have reached a consensus which can be submitted to Parliament for ratification,” said Harper. Liberal leader Stephane Dion was not immediately available for comment.
Harper’s government could still in theory fall over its February 26 budget or over a package crime legislation. But the Liberals, lagging in the polls, seem to have a decreasing appetite for triggering a new election.
Harper won the January 2006 election, ending more than 12 years of Liberal rule.
Harper made clear last month that Canada would only extend the mission to 2011 if NATO committed 1,000 more troops to the Kandahar region and Ottawa obtained military helicopters and unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles.
“In recent days I have contacted the leaders of major NATO countries and advised them that Canada’s continued role in the region is contingent on greater support from our allies,” said Harper, who is unhappy at what he sees as the reluctance of some member nations to commit troops to southern Afghanistan.
The topic of troops in Afghanistan is set to dominate a summit of NATO leaders in early April.
So far 78 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan and polls show around half of Canadians want the troops out on schedule next February.
Harper, whose government has pumped billions of dollars into the armed forces since 2006, also said Ottawa would boost the automatic annual increase in defense spending to 2 percent from 1.5 percent starting in the 2011-12 financial year.
With additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway