Harper vows compromise on Afghan mission
Prime Minister Stephen Harper welcomed as “important progress” Liberal amendments to his government's motion in the House of Commons to extend the Canadian combat mission in Afghanistan to 2011.
Mr. Harper said his government will seriously consider the Liberal proposals, which include an end to combat operations in 2009 and full troop withdrawal from Kandahar in February 2011.
Mr. Harper said the Liberal commitment to a continued military presence in the country post-2009 is “really very close to the government's position” and he raised the possibility the Conservatives would introduce a new motion on the matter.
“I'd like to say just how pleased I am to see greater clarity by the Liberals on their position in Afghanistan,” Mr. Harper told reporters in French.
“The government intends to examine these proposals in greater detail ... so as to give a more wide-ranging answer and perhaps a new motion.”
The vote on the Conservative motion, based on recommendations from a panel chaired by former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley, will be considered one of confidence in the government.
As first reported by The Globe and Mail, the Liberal caucus agreed Monday night on an amendment to the motion that offers support for a military presence in the Kandahar region of southern Afghanistan to February, 2011, but makes no mention of a combat role.
Instead, Canadian Forces would train the Afghan army and provide "defensive security" – in other words, militarily engage hostile forces only to protect themselves, civilians and development.
Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said Canada's involvement in Afghanistan after 2009 should be viewed as a new mission with a new focus on training and reconstruction. He said it would be up to the military to decide what level of security is needed – an obvious attempt at compromise on the controversial combat question.
“We will not micro-manage the military. It is for them to determine how to implement this new mission,” Mr. Dion said.
Mr. Harper later described this position as “very important.”
“We should not be asking our military to pursue a mission in a very dangerous part of the world and at the same time, ask them to telephone 24 Sussex in order to get orders every day,” the Prime Minister said.
The crux of the Liberal amendments is that any extension of the mission be approved only on the condition that NATO secures sufficient troops “to rotate into Kandahar (operational no later than February 2009) to allow Canadian troops to be deployed pursuant to the mission priorities of training and reconstruction,” the amendment states.
“We need the troops coming from NATO that will take on their shoulders their parts of the mission,” Mr. Dion said Tuesday.
The Liberal Leader said he does not want Afghanistan to be the trigger for a spring election. “You have Canadians risking their lives there. It would be good that we find a way to agree between ourselves on what we need to do, and I hope this motion will help with that,” Mr. Dion said.
“I have heard that the Prime Minister might consider a vote on Afghanistan before the budget. I hope it's not true. It cannot be true. It would be completely irresponsible.”
For his part, Mr. Harper said he has no interest in fighting an election over the Afghan issue.
“The government's objective is to seek common ground here,” he said, while adding it's still important enough to warrant a confidence vote.
The Liberal amendment, which was written in part by deputy leader Michael Ignatieff and Foreign Affairs critic Bob Rae, also says that support for the mission is contingent on NATO securing additional troops, helicopters and other equipment for southern Afghanistan.
It calls for reconstruction and development aid to be increased.
Peter Van Loan, the House Leader, said Monday night that he is pleased there will be Liberal input into the Tory motion soon and that the Conservatives will study the amendments and will be "working for a way forward" on the Afghan mission.
He said the Tories are seeking an end date of 2011, adding the motion is clear on that, although the Liberals had argued that the mission was "never ending" because there was no clear end date.
Mr. Dion had insisted that he wanted the combat portion of the mission to end by February, 2009, but some in his caucus had appeared uncomfortable with that position.
There were "definitely some splits ... some louder than others," a Liberal official said.
Several Liberal MPs were carefully picking their words earlier Monday when asked about their support for their Leader's position.
There were also splits in the Liberal women's caucus, according to a senior source, who said that recent meetings had become a "little bit ugly."
While the political parties thrash out the issue on Parliament Hill, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is speaking to his NATO colleagues to see if he can drum up support for 1,000 more soldiers to help the Canadian contingent in Kandahar. Canada may get some help from the French, and yesterday Mr. Harper called German Chancellor Angela Merkel to determine if Germany, which has about 3,200 soldiers performing reconstruction work in the relatively peaceful northern part of Afghanistan, might be willing to help.
"The Chancellor said she understood the debate well and said the [Manley] panel's report had been worthwhile and useful – not just for Canada," Sandra Buckler, the Prime Minister's director of communications, said in an e-mail.
It may be, however, that the Liberals will not have to deal with a vote on Afghanistan because there is growing speculation they will defeat the government on its budget on Feb. 26. The Afghan motion is not expected to be put to a vote until March.
One Ontario MP called the debate over the Afghan amendment a "moot point."
"They've [Mr. Dion and his close advisers] already made the decision to go on the budget," the MP said. "I think he has decided the path of least resistance is [to go on] the budget."
Our commentary in the Globe and Mail