Canada should not abandon Afghans, PM says in Australia

Rather than set a timeline to pull its troops out of Afghanistan, Canada should see the mission through until Afghans are able to take over security in their country, PM Stephen Harper said Tuesday.

Rather than set an arbitrary timeline to pull its troops out of Afghanistan, Canada should see the mission through until the Afghan people are able to stand alone and take over security responsibilities in their country, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Tuesday.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to the Australian Parliament in Canberra on Tuesday. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

Characterizing the Afghan mission as a "global and necessary" cause, Harper told Australia's Parliament in Canberra on Tuesday morning (local time) that although he understands that Canadian support is divided on the mission, it would not be right towalk away fromthe Afghan people.

"We should work towards the objective instead of a particular arbitrary timeline — that's my sense," Harper said. "But I hope the debate in Canada will turn to really what should we do? What's the right thing to do? Because I don't hear anybody in the world saying the right thing to do is abandon the people of Afghanistan."

Harper addressed Australia's government on the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror strikes against the U.S. As the events of that tragic date showed, he said, "if we abandon our fellow human beings to lives of poverty, brutality and ignorance in today's global village, their misery will eventually and inevitably become our own."

Troops respond to 'wishes of politicians'

Earlier this week, Harper said there would be no vote on whether to extend Canada's military mission in Afghanistan beyond February 2009 until the Conservatives and opposition parties can agree to a new Canadian mandate.

Canada currently has about 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan.

The CBC's David Common, reporting from Kandahar, said on Tuesday that the official view from the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan was that soldiers "see it as their responsibility to respond effectively to the wishes of politicians and of Canadians."

Howard acknowledges Canada's 'heavy burden'

"If [soldiers] are dispatched here in Afghanistan, they do their job. If the mission is extended, they do so. If not, they go home and pull up," Common said.

Anecdotally, he said, soldiers have reported some progress in the region despite rising levels of violence.

In Canberra, Harper commended his Australian counterpart, John Howard, for the work of his country's 550 troops deployed in Afghanistan. Howard returned the compliment, noting that Canada was carrying "a very heavy burden" given the number of troops the nation has stationed there.

However, Howard would not say whether Australia would commit to expanding its combat role.

Since the mission began in 2002, Canada has lost 70 soldiers in the line of fire and one Canadian diplomat.