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John Manley, left, presents his report on Canada's future in Afghanistan to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Parliament Hill on Tuesday. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

Canada's military should remain in Afghanistan beyond February 2009, contingent on more support in terms of troops and equipment, according to a panel led by former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley.

The five-member panel was not specific about how long Canada's mission in the embattled country should last. The report said it could find "no operational logic" for choosing February 2009 as the end date for the Canadian military mission in Kandahar, and there was nothing to indicate that it would be completed by that date.

"We are recommending a Canadian commitment to Afghanistan that is neither open-ended nor faint-hearted," says the report.

The biggest problem facing the ISAF mission is that there are not enough military forces deployed against the insurgents, the panel observes.

"The mission is in jeopardy. There simply are not enough troops to ensure that the job can be properly done in Kandahar province ... we hope that this [report] is not a poison pill. We need to be very direct with NATO," Manley said in a news conference shortly after the release of the report.

The panel says Canada needs to remain in Afghanistan provided two conditions are met:

  • The assignment of an additional battle group of about 1,000 soldiers to Kandahar by NATO and/or other allies before February 2009.
  • That the government secure new, medium-lift helicopters and high-performance unmanned aerial vehicles for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance before that date.

The additional troops would expand security coverage in Kandahar, help prevent incursions from Pakistan, and accelerate training of Afghan army and police units.

If these conditions are not met, "the government should give appropriate notice to the Afghan and allied governments of its intention to transfer responsibility for security in Kandahar," the panel says.

The timing of a Canadian military withdrawal depends on the Afghan army and police increasing its capacity, the panel reports. Progress, especially from the Afghan National Army, has been encouraging but modest, it notes, adding there was no consensus as to when Afghan security forces will be competent enough to handle security themselves.

"The hard truth is than an ISAF retreat from Afghanistan before that country's own forces can defend its security would most likely condemn the Afghan people to a new and bloody cycle of civil war and misrule — and raise new threats to global peace and security," the panel says.

"In sum, an immediate military withdrawal from Afghanistan would cause more harm than good."

Peacekeeping role not an option: panel

The panel also rejects an option to allow troops to adopt a traditional peacekeeping role in Kandahar, using force only as self-defence, saying that there is not yet peace to keep in Afghanistan.

"We've heard it again and again, 'This is NATO's most important mission.' Well, it's time for the rhetoric to end," Manley told the news conference.

"Either they mean it, that this is the most important mission, or they don't. If they don't, then we need to look to the well-being of our young people."

The panel  — which includes former broadcaster Pamela Wallin, Derek Burney, former ambassador to Washington and one-time chief of staff to former prime minister Brian Mulroney, Paul Tellier, former clerk of the privy council, and Jake Epp, a former Mulroney cabinet minister — spent 10 days touring Afghanistan in November.

It said Canada's role must place greater emphasis on diplomacy and reconstruction, and the Canadian military focus must shift gradually from combat to training Afghan national security forces.

Among the other recommendations:

  • Canada's civilian reconstruction and development should concentrate more on aid that directly benefits the Afghan people.
  • The government should conduct a full-scale review of the performance of Canadian civilian aid programs.
  • Effectiveness of Canada's military and civilian activities, and progress of Afghan security and government must be tracked.
  • The federal government should improve its communications about the Canadian mission.

Manley also had tough words for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, saying he must "step up" and make the mission a top priority, and be supported by a special cabinet committee and full-time task force to co-ordinate Canada's efforts.

But more importantly, Harper should personally oversee diplomatic efforts to put pressure on NATO, he said.

The findings aren't binding, but will carry weight in the discussions about Canada's future role in Afghanistan given that Harper has also promised to allow MPs to vote on the issue in Parliament.

In a statement, Harper thanked the panel for the "substantive and thoughtful report," adding that the government will "thoroughly review" the recommendations and comment in the next few days.

200 submissions considered

The panel received more than 200 submissions from interested people and organizations, including from the Liberal party and the Green party, the CBC's Rosemary Barton reported. The NDP and the Bloc Québécois, which have been critical of the panel, didn't submit suggestions, she said.

The Liberals have indicated they would like to see Canada's combat role in the south wind down by the 2009 deadline, with more emphasis placed on the development element of the mission.

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said he had not yet read the report and declined to offer detailed comment.

However, he repeated the party's long-held position that Canada's combat mission must end as scheduled in February 2009, although Canada could continue to play a role in construction, training and humanitarian aid.

"Our current position, as you know, is that the combat mission end in February 2009," he said at a Liberal caucus meeting in Kitchener, Ont.

"We have strong reasons for that. We think it's by far the most dangerous mission in Afghanistan. We have carried this mission during three years and it's time for Canada to do something else in Afghanistan."

NDP Leader Jack Layton, who has called for a complete and immediate Canadian withdrawal, reacted negatively to the recommendations.

"This report is clearly out of touch with the feelings of a great many Canadians and a careful reading of the report shows that this mission is failing on many, many fronts," Layton told reporters following a meeting with caucus members in Montebello, Que.   

"The NDP continues to believe that a complete change of direction is essential in Afghanistan."

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe also disagreed with extending the mission.

"Canadian and Quebec military have done more than their share. Other countries now must step in and take up the challenge," Duceppe said.

Seventy-seven Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have been killed since the beginning of Canada's mission in Afghanistan in 2002.

Corrections

  • Peter MacKay is the defence minister, not the foreign affairs minister as originally reported.
    Jan 22, 2008 6:33 AM ET
With files from the Canadian Press