Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says Canada should commit its military to training Afghanistan's police and soldiers after its combat mission in Kandahar ends in 2011.

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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff during question period in the House of Commons on Monday. Ignatieff says Canada should commit its military to training Afghanistan's police and soldiers after its combat mission in Kandahar ends in 2011. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

It marks the first time the Liberal leader has publicly stated his position on what role Canada's soldiers should have in Afghanistan beyond next summer.

In a speech in Toronto, Ignatieff said he believes the current combat mission should end on schedule, but his party is ready for a "frank national conversation" on Canada's post-2011 presence in Afghanistan.

In the meantime, he accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of "walking away" from the Afghan mission "as if it never occurred."

"Mr. Harper wants to stop that conversation; I want to start it," Ignatieff said.

Along with a continued civilian presence to bolster Afghanistan's fledgling government, Ignatieff proposed that some Canadian troops to remain in the Afghan capital Kabul for an undefined "fixed period" to provide training at a military and police staff college.

"The whole purpose [of the mission] was to enable the country to stand on its feet …However difficult it may be to say so, I think there is more work to be done," he said.

Liberals unveil foreign policy agenda

Ignatief also pledged a Liberal government would reallocate the $1.7-billion annual cost of the Afghan mission to deliver the "right balance" between defence, development and diplomacy.

The Liberal leader's comments came as he released his party's sweeping foreign policy agenda, which calls for increased engagement with emerging economies like India, China, Brazil and building partnerships with growing democracies in Africa. 

Earlier this month, a group of MPs visiting Afghanistan, including Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae, suggested an agreement could be reached in Parliament to keep some Canadian troops in the country after the current mission ends next summer. 

At the time, the prime minister noted the MPs' comments "with interest," but added that the government continues to work according to a 2008 parliamentary resolution that calls for Canada to "end its presence in Kandahar as of July 2011" and for all Canadian forces to have left by the following December.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay has also said Canada is willing to continue mentoring Afghan police after the troop disengagement begins next summer.

About 2,830 Canadian troops are deployed in Afghanistan, mostly in the southern province of Kandahar, as part of NATO's International Security Assistance Force.

Since 2002, when the mission began, 147 Canadian soldiers have been killed. Four Canadian civilians have also been killed, including a diplomat, a journalist and two aid workers.

With files from The Canadian Press