Afghan election process 'not pretty' but useful: MacKay

Canada's defence minister says the process of electing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, while flawed, produced a result that was important for stabilizing the country in advance of Canada's troop withdrawal.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has promised reforms to root out the corruption that has undermined trust in his administration. ((Musadeq Sadeq/Associated Press))
Canada's defence minister says the process of electing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, while flawed, produced a result that was important for stabilizing the country in advance of Canada's troop withdrawal.

Peter MacKay, speaking from the Canadian military base in Kandahar, said Canada was still committed to its partnership with the Afghan government in ensuring the stability of the region.

But he said he would like to see the Afghan leader tackle corruption in his government and would be watching with interest to see who Karzai appointed to his cabinet.

Karzai was declared the winner of Afghanistan's presidential election after his competitor in a scheduled run-off vote — former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah — dropped out just days before the vote.

The run-off was scheduled for November after the first round of voting was marred by widespread fraud, but Abdullah dropped out because he said the run-off could not be conducted freely or fairly until changes were made to the election commission.

MacKay acknowledged problems in the way Karzai was elected.

"This process, I'll be frank, was not pretty," MacKay said. "But we have an outcome — albeit [through] a process that took a very convoluted route and was flawed in many ways — and it's important to note this was a second successful election since the fall of the Taliban."

MacKay said the hope was that Afghanistan could learn from the process and build on the experience for future elections.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay, shown here with Gen. Walter Natynczyk, says Natynczyk's preparations for withdrawing all of Canada's soldiers from Kandahar by 2011 are consistent with the government's own stance. ((Patricia Bell/CBC))

Having a reliable partner is important, said MacKay, as Canada works to train the Afghan security forces to take over responsibilities to protect the country's citizens ahead of Canada's planned withdrawal in 2011.

Troop pullout scheduled for 2011

MacKay also addressed the future role of Canadian Forces in Kandahar, saying the plan of Canada's top commander to withdraw all of the country's soldiers from Kandahar by 2011 was consistent with the government's own stance.

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walt Natynczyk had told CBC News in an exclusive interview that the parliamentary motion on the Afghan mission specifies that it ends in July 2011, and that means the pullout of Canadian Forces.

CBC News had previously reported that Natynczyk ordered his commanders to start preparing plans to pull out of Afghanistan and return thousands of soldiers and billions of dollars' worth of equipment to Canada.

MacKay said Natynczyk's interpretation of Parliament's instructions to withdraw from Kandahar was "reflective of what everyone from the prime minister on down views as those instructions."

But MacKay was unclear on what direction the mission would take after 2011 and whether it would involve regions of the country outside of Kandahar.

"The military mission is changing," he said. "It is obviously transitioning at 2011 to emphasis on reconstruction, development, things that we are doing now but we'll be able to do more.

"And clearly, there is discussion as to how this is going to take place. We're tasked with that now."

NDP defence critic Jack Harris says the military is trying to force the government to define the scope of the mission publicly so Canadians understand what their government is asking its soldiers to do. The problem, Harris said, is that the government is afraid to do that.  

"If they intend to do something militarily after 2011, I think they better start a public debate because I think most Canadians are satisfied that the military mission will come to an end," Harris said.  

In the absence of that kind of debate and direction from Parliament, the military must leave Afghanistan, just as the general indicated, Harris said.

Last month, the prime minister's spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, told CBC News that Canadian soldiers would remain in Afghanistan past 2011, though he suggested a force much smaller than the 2,800-troop mission now in Kandahar.