The Harper government will disclose Tuesday details of its plan to extend Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan for an additional three years.
Sources say the plan will involve keeping up to 950 military personnel “in and around” Kabul to help train Afghan security forces. The precise makeup of the new mission, which is to be strictly non-combat, will be decided after further consultation with Canada’s allies.
The training mission will extend the presence of Canadian soldiers in the war-torn country until 2014, three years beyond the July 2011 date approved by Parliament for ending the current combat mission.
The details are to be disclosed at a news conference Tuesday, attended by Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, Defence Minister Peter MacKay and International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda.
The news conference was scheduled late Monday, after the government was pummelled in the House of Commons for failing to provide details and for its refusal to seek parliamentary approval for the extension.
Cannon argued that a vote is unnecessary because the extension would not involve combat. He compared the Afghan extension to the decision to deploy non-combat troops to Haiti without parliamentary approval.
“Our recent deployment of military personnel to Haiti following the earthquake in the month of January is a perfect example of deploying troops in a non-combat role without requiring a vote of the House of Commons,” Cannon said.
As the Commons returned after a one-week recess, the NDP made a concerted effort to push for a vote. NDP Leader Jack Layton accused the Conservative government and the Liberal Opposition of conspiring to keep military trainers in Afghanistan for three more years without Parliament’s approval.
Meanwhile, the Liberals continued to press — unsuccessfully — for firm details of the plan.
Cannon said the government was still considering its options, and would tell the Commons “soon” exactly how many troops would be deployed and where they would serve.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said Cannon’s answers were “genuinely absurd” given that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is to meet with his fellow NATO leaders later this week in Portugal.
“We are five days away from the Lisbon summit and the government is unable to stand up in the House and tell us exactly what the post-2011 combat mission looks like. How can the government explain this silence? How can it explain its improvisation? How can it explain its secrecy?”
Harper was not in the Commons on Monday, after returning the previous evening from a week of international summitry that took him to South Korea and Japan.
The prime minister’s chief spokesman said Canada’s decision to extend training to 2014 brings Canada in line with the new target date set out by the United States and other allies to begin turning security responsibilities over to Afghans.
“That’s the ultimate objective,” Dimitri Soudas said in an interview.
“Despite the asks from our allies, we will not be extending the combat mission per se,” Soudas added.
“Canada has carried a greater proportion of the combat burden since 2006.”
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that combat operations and training were crucial to reaching the goal of drawing down western military forces in Afghanistan by 2014.
Rasmussen said military gains by NATO-led forces have forced Taliban insurgents to consider a negotiated end to the conflict.
“I consider it of utmost importance to continue our military operations because the fact is that the increasing military pressure on the Taliban and the Taliban leadership has stimulated the reconciliation talks,” Rasmussen said at NATO headquarters in Brussels
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is also to attend the Lisbon summit, has said he wants his country’s security forces to be able to take the lead in protecting their citizens by 2014.
“The decisions we will take at the summit in Lisbon will launch the transition process,” Rasmussen said, calling the talks that Harper and dozens of other leaders will attend “one of the most important summits in NATO’s history”
Cannon said the Conservatives would respect the March 2008 parliamentary motion that extended the combat mission by two years, to 2011, and that specified combat would end by then.
While he maintained a non-combat deployment doesn’t require parliamentary approval, Cannon noted the Conservatives adopted the “practice” of consulting Parliament on decisions that would send Canadian troops into combat.
“We’re the first government to have done that,” he said.
However, Layton said, “anyone who goes around saying that the deployment of troops in Afghanistan does not entail great risk is sorely underestimating the intelligence of Canadians.”
He accused the Conservatives and Liberals “working side by side to extend our military mission in Afghanistan.” And he said the Liberals were giving the Conservatives lessons in arrogance, flip-flopping and “avoiding accountability.”
Layton said a military mission that will cost taxpayers billions more dollars must be put to a vote in the Commons.
Earlier Monday, Layton said a vote in Parliament on extending the Afghanistan military mission would expose divisions within the Liberal party.
Layton said it is well known there is a deep divide within the Liberal party on whether the Forces should remain in Afghanistan beyond the July 2011 withdrawal date set by Parliament.
Layton said his party is united in its resolve to bring all combat troops home as scheduled and focus only on development and diplomatic efforts to help Afghanistan.
In South Korea last week, Harper confirmed that he reluctantly decided that Canada would keep military trainers in Afghanistan three years beyond 2011, but he has not specified how many.
Ignatieff has said his party supports a military training mission for Canada post-2011 but wants Harper to provide further details.
Liberal insiders say the party has not ruled out using its opposition day on Thursday to force a debate and vote on extending the mission. The party has until the end of the day Tuesday to decide what motion it will present.
Before they come to that decision, they’re hoping the government will provide more details about what Harper has in mind.
Liberal insiders deny they are trying to avoid a vote out of fear it would expose a rift in the Liberal caucus over the issue. They say only a handful of Liberal MPs are opposed to a post-combat training mission.