An independent panel has been established to review Canada's mission and future in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Friday.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a non-partisan panel to review Canada's mission and future in Afghanistan. Former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley, right, will chair the five-person committee. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

As Canada's current mandate in Afghanistan is set to expire in 16 months, "our government wants a full, open and informed debate about our options," Harper said from the foyer at the House of Commons. "Given what's at stake … we are prepared to announce today an independent panel to study our options."

Harper named former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley to chair a five-person committee that will recommend what Canada's role in Afghanistan should — or should not — be after the mandate for the current mission ends in February 2009.

The committee will then advise parliamentarians on the best course of action, Harper said.

Harper listed four other "eminent Canadians" appointed to the committee:

  • Former CBC journalist Pamela Wallin, an officer of the Order of Canada who serves as a top adviser on Canada-U.S. relations to the president of the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas in New York.
  • Canadian businessman and former U.S. ambassador Derek Burney, who was a key political strategist for former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.
  • Former Bombardier CEO Paul Tellier, who served as clerk of the Privy Council under Mulroney.
  • Former Mulroney health minister Jake Epp.

Manley was also a Liberal cabinet minister in charge of the finance and industry portfolios.

The five-member panel will receive its terms of reference Friday, then travel to Afghanistan to assess how best to provide aid to the country.

The panel will report directly to Harper by the end of January 2008.

Harper said that he wanted to ensure the panel would be non-partisan and that he hoped the committee would bear in mind "the sacrifices Canadians have made there" at the cost of public funds and military staff, as well as what implications Canada's next actions might have on the country's international reputation.

Harper said he was asking the panel to consider four main options in their study:

  • Option 1: Continue training the Afghan army and police with the goal of creating a self-sufficient security force.
  • Option 2: Focus on Kandahar reconstruction, passing on main security responsibilities to another foreign force.
  • Option 3: Move military operations and reconstruction efforts to other areas of Afghanistan.
  • Option 4:Withdraw Canadian forces altogether after February 2009, leaving only a small contingent to ensure security for diplomats.

Pundits in Ottawa raised their eyebrows on Friday to news that Manley, a prominent Liberal, had been named to head a mission reporting to the Conservative prime minister on the Afghanistan issue. The selection was regarded as a strategic move from the Conservatives four days ahead of Harper's Oct. 16 throne speech.

'Poke in the eye for the Liberals'

"It seems that it is certainly a poke in the eye for the Liberals, to scoop up one of their veterans, one of their luminaries, and put him in this advisory role," the CBC's Julie Van Dusen noted from Ottawa. "This will certainly cause havoc amongst Liberals, who will be asking what John Manley thinks he's doing."

'I came to this conclusion: I am a Liberal; I am asupporter of the Liberal party.' — John Manley, chair of the Afghan study panel

Asked whether he had informed Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion about accepting his new task on Friday, Manley told reporters he called Dion the previous night and explained to him that Canada's future in Afghanistan "really transcends partisan politics."

"I came to this conclusion: I am a Liberal; I am a supporter of the Liberal party," he said.

"I hope that [Dion] understands that it's necessary to consider the best advice possible and I hope that our recommendations will be useful not only for the government, but also for Mr. Dion and for the Liberal party," he added later.

Liberals hope panel will create discussion

Manley told reporters he had not yet made up his mind on the best direction to take on Afghanistan, but he has given some insight in a recent essay. In his article published in the magazine Policy Options, Manley wrote: "There is no possible way to separate development and the humanitarian mission from the military one."

Roughly 2,500 Canadian soldiers are serving in the violent southern Kandahar region of Afghanistan. To date, 71 Canadian troops have died there and one Canadian diplomat was killed.

Later Friday, Dion said he thought the panel can be useful, but should not be used to delay Canada's withdrawal from combat.

"I'm not against a panel of experts. I have a strong regard for many of the members of this panel, especially the president of the panel," Dion said.

"What I'm saying though it should not be a pretext for the government to postpone what the government has to do. And it is to notify NATO and the government of Afghanistan that our combat mission in Kandahar will endin February 2009 and thatCanada will be available and willing to help otherwise than through a combat mission."

Bob Rae, the new Liberal Foreign Affairs critic, welcomed the idea and insistedthe panel's study shouldcontinue in concert withdebate in the House of Commons over the Afghan mission.

Layton criticizes panel

Newly appointed Liberal foreign-affairs critic Bob Rae said discussion over Canada's role in Afghanistan must continue within government.

"The panel can do its work, but this issue rests solidly with the government of Canada and the Parliament of Canada," said Rae, who doesn't have a seat in the House of Commons.

"You don't shut down Parliament just because the prime minister has set up a little panel somewhere. That's not how ourCanadian political system works."

The Liberal party stands by its position thatCanada's combat role in southern Afghanistan should end by February 2009, Rae said.

"This is an effort by the prime minister to try to manage this issue in a political fashion. You'd have to be a very naive soul not to see what the prime minister is doing," he said.

Meanwhile, NDP Leader Jack Layton criticized the high-powered panel Friday, saying he was surprised that the government cobbled together an independent group of outsiders instead of having parliamentarians do the work of what is essentially a policy issue.

Harper said the panel would be putting forward "expert advice," but that it would ultimately "help parliamentarians make the right choice."