Taliban will see Canada as 'weak link' if Afghan debate drags on: Hillier

Canada's top soldier urged Parliament to come to a quick decision on the country's role in Afghanistan, warning that lengthy debate may put soldiers increasingly at risk as the Taliban take advantage of the uncertainty.

Canada's top soldier urged Parliament to come to a quick decision on the country's role in Afghanistan, warning that lengthy debate may put soldiers increasingly at risk as the Taliban take advantage of the uncertainty.

Gen. Rick Hillier said on Friday that the Taliban are watching Canada's debate on the Afghan mission and may increase attacks on the country's soldiers if they perceive weakness. ((CBC))

"We are, in the eyes of the Taliban, in a window of extreme vulnerability, and the longer we go without that clarity, with the issue in doubt, the more the Taliban will target us as a perceived weak link," Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier said Friday.

Speaking at a meeting of the Conference of Defence Associations, a military advocacy group, Hillier referred to recent attacks in Afghanistan.

A spate of suicide bombings hit southern Afghanistan earlier this week, including one attack that targeted a Canadian convoy, slightly wounding three soldiers.

Hillier wouldn't definitively say the suicide bombings were linked to political debate in Canada.

But he warned that if the Taliban sense weakness, they may try to take advantage of it and attack Canadian soldiers to prevent a cohesive mission.

The longer the Canadian Forces go without clarity about the mission, the more difficult it will be to protect the soldiers, he told reporters after the speech.

Ottawa is in the midst of deciding what form Canada's military presence should take past its current end-date of February 2009.

While debate is necessary, Hillier said, there has to be a decision at the end of it.

Debate unavoidable, Dion reiterates

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion repeated his assertion Friday that debate is unavoidable.

"I think the Taliban want to kill our soldiers anyway. It's a dangerous mission, I know," Dion told reporters in Winnipeg.

"We are a pluralist democracy and we're fighting to be sure that Afghanistan too, one day, will be a pluralist democracy where people may debate without being in danger of their lives."

Dion is not making any commitment to back a revised Conservative motion on Afghanistan, a proposal intended to bridge the gap between the government and the opposition Liberals.

But he said the government has moved toward the Liberal position and much progress has been made.

"Our brave men and women in uniform are risking their lives, it's true, which is why I would prefer not to have an election with that as a trigger," he said.

NATO general expects allies to offer troops

The new motion, which Harper revealed before the same group Hillier addressed,  calls for the mission to be renewed past 2009 but with a focus on reconstruction and training of Afghan troops, and for all Canadian troops to leave Afghanistan by December 2011.

Previously, the Conservative government had put forward a motion that left the mission open to renewal in 2011 and would have seen the military continue in a combat role.

The latest motion still makes Canada's continued presence in the volatile Kandahar region contingent on whether NATO allies provide 1,000 extra troops and Ottawa secures additional equipment.

Also on Friday, Canadian Gen. Ray Henault, who chairs NATO's military committee, said he believes other countries will be able to contribute the extra troops Canada requires to continue its mission in Afghanistan.

"I am confident that NATO nations will come to the assistance of Canada," said Henault. "We'll source the additional personnel requirements that Canada has called for in the south."

Motion won't restrict military operations

Canadian soldiers have been keeping a close eye on the Afghan mission debate, Hillier said, and all they ask is that the government give them a clear mandate.

"They do ask … that they get that clarity of purpose as soon as we can give it to them."

Troops also need flexibility on the ground to not only defend themselves but to ensure security by going out and finding insurgents, he said.

He noted that over the past few months Canadian soldiers have hunted down six senior Taliban leaders who orchestrated attacks against coalition forces.

Hillier said he doesn't have any concerns that the current government motion will restrict his soldiers' flexibility on the ground.

The prime minister said Thursday that both the Liberals and Conservatives agree that operational decisions should be left up to the commanders overseeing the mission in Afghanistan.