Harper says 2011 'end date' for Afghanistan mission

Canada will withdraw the bulk of its military forces in Afghanistan as scheduled in 2011, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper pledged on Wednesday.

'The mission, as we've known it, we intend to end,' PM tells reporters

Canada will withdraw the bulk of its military forces in Afghanistan as scheduled in 2011, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper pledged on Wednesday, saying the Afghan government "at some point has to be able to be primarily responsible" for the country's security.

Speaking to reporters at a breakfast briefing in Toronto, Harper said the Canadian public has no appetite to keep soldiers in the war-torn country any longer than the pullout date agreed on by Parliament.

"You have to put an end date on these things," Harper said. 

He added that while Canada's military leaders have not acknowledged it publicly, a decade of war is enough.

"By 2011, we will have been in Kandahar, which is probably the toughest province in the country, for six years," Harper said.

"Not only have we done our bit at that point, I think our goal has to be after six years to see the government of Afghanistan able to carry the lion's share of responsibility for its own security.

"At that point, the mission, as we've known it, we intend to end."

The unusually candid remarks from Harper included the Tory leader acknowledging he cried the first time he had to call the family of a soldier killed in Afghanistan.

Troops would stay 'in some technical capacities'

The Tory government, supported by the Liberals, extended the military mission in Kandahar province to 2011 earlier this year, with a shift to emphasize the mission's priorities to reconstruction and development in the region.

Harper has made past statements in support of a shift in Canada's priorities in Afghanistan, but the prime minister's latest comments appear to show for the first time his acceptance of a troop pullout by the date.

"It's fair to say he was clearer and perhaps more forceful than before on what is going to happen in 2011," the CBC's Paul Hunter reported from the Harper campaign.

While there may be a few Canadian soldiers who stay on after 2011 as advisers, the bulk of the troops will be home by then, Harper said.

"I don't want to say we won't have a single troop there, because obviously we would aid in some technical capacities," he said. 

Dion: Harper 'ambiguous' with allies

Speaking to reporters in Ontario on Wednesday, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said Harper's comments show "he knows now that Canadians want to leave in 2011" despite sending mixed messages abroad. 

"He's saying that, but he has been ambiguous with our allies," Dion said during a campaign stop in Walkerton. "We have asked him many times in the House, 'Did you say that to them?'"

Dion added the only way for Canadians to ensure the government "will say to the world the mission will end in June 2011 is to vote Liberal."

The prime minister's assurances come as the death toll for Canadians in Afghanistan since troops deployed there in 2002 approaches 100. One Canadian diplomat has also died in the mission.

Taliban insurgents have stepped up their attacks in Afghanistan in the last month, in what they claim is an attempt to influence Canada's federal election.

With files from the Canadian Press