OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada will pull its 2,500 troops out of Afghanistan early next year unless NATO sends in significant reinforcements, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Monday, signaling Ottawa has lost patience with what it sees as foot-dragging by allies.
The minority Conservative government wants the soldiers to stay beyond their current withdrawal date of February 2009 but in another potential threat to the mission, the main opposition Liberal Party expressed doubts about the idea of an extension.
Harper, who is exasperated at the refusal of many other NATO nations to commit more troops to Afghanistan, said the Alliance’s failure to provide enough forces meant the whole future of the organization was under serious threat.
So far, 78 Canadian soldiers and a diplomat have died since Ottawa deployed troops to Afghanistan in 2002.
Harper said he accepted the recommendations of an independent panel which last week urged Canada to end its mission in the southern city of Kandahar unless NATO provided an extra 1,000 troops and Ottawa obtained helicopters and aerial reconnaissance vehicles.
“For this mission to go forward and achieve its objectives and be successful, we do have the need for a substantial increase in combat troops and particular needs in terms of military equipment,” Harper told a news conference.
“Both of those recommendations will have to be fulfilled or Canada will not proceed with the mission in Afghanistan. We believe these are essential to our success.”
Harper, saying he was “always optimistic on these things,” said he would raise Canada’s demand for more troops before NATO leaders hold a summit in Bucharest in early April.
“NATO’s reputation is on the line here ... all the increasing evidence suggests that NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan as a whole are not adequate, but particularly in Kandahar province,” he said.
“Canada has done what it said it would do and more. We now say we need help. I think if NATO can’t come through with that help, then I think — frankly — NATO’s own reputation and future will be in grave jeopardy.”
His bid to prolong the mission is also complicated by his fragile hold on power. The Conservatives hold a minority of seats in the House of Commons and require the support of at least one opposition party to pass legislation.
Liberal leader Stephane Dion — who says the troops should switch away from a combat role next February and focus on training Afghan forces — said Harper was being too vague about how he would extend the mission.
“There is a gulf of differences as to how we see things ... it looks a design for a never-ending mission and this we are completely against,” he told reporters, saying he was happy to discuss the matter further with Harper.
An Ipsos-Reid poll released on Saturday said 50 percent of Canadians backed he mission and 46 percent opposed it.
“This is an extremely difficult mission ... there has been no issue that has caused me as prime minister more headaches and quite frankly more heartache,” said Harper, who said he will ask the House of Commons this spring to approve a plan for the Afghanistan mission.
He declined to say whether he would make this a matter of confidence, saying his strong preference was to come up with a motion that would win the support of the House.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer