Bernier clarifies comments over Kandahar's governor

Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier said Monday that Canada is not calling for any changes to the Afghan government, hours after he suggested the Afghan president might have to replace Kandahar's governor.

Canada is not calling for any changes to the Afghan government, Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier said Monday, hours after he suggested the Afghan president might have to replace Kandahar's governor.

Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier is wrapping up a three-day visit to Afghanistan. ((CBC))

Just before wrapping up a three-day visit to Afghanistan, Bernier made the comment in response to a question about what Afghan President Hamid Karzai needs to do about political corruption in the south.

"I think [Karzai] can work with us to be sure that the governor will be more powerful, the governor will do what he has to do to help us, and there's the question to maybe have a new governor," Bernier said.

"They're a sovereign state, they're going to have to decide, it's a decision that the president will have to take in the near future, about the future of the government we're having here.

"Is it the right person at the right place at the right time? President Karzai will have to answer these questions as soon as possible."

The governor of Kandahar, Asadullah Khalid, was among Afghan officials alleged to have participated in torture of detainees. Khalid has denied the reports.

The Afghan government asked Ottawa to clarify what Bernier meant by his comments and a short time later, the minister's office issued a statement.

"Afghanistan is a sovereign state that makes its own decisions about government appointments. I can assure you that Canada fully respects this and is not calling for any changes to the Afghan government," the statement said.

Ottawa will continue private discussions

After Bernier's comment, a spokesman for the minister approached reporters and said it was a mistake for him to make the comments publicly.

But the official did say there were private conversations going on behind closed doors about the governor.

Asked whether Bernier went too far, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said at a news conference in Winnipeg on Monday afternoon that the minister quickly clarified the "misimpressions that were left from earlier comments."

The Canadian government has talked to the Afghanistan government about performance and concerns and that "we will continue to express them privately," he said.

During Monday's question period, House Leader Peter Van Loan faced repeated opposition calls for clarification on Bernier's statements, including a direct question from Liberal MP Bob Rae: "What do you really think of the governor of Kandahar?"

In response, Van Loan replied with variations on the statement "Afghanistan is a sovereign country."

"The affairs of the Afghan government are the affairs of the Afghan government," he told the House. "We are seeking no changes to the Afghan government."

Outside the House, opposition parties questioned whether Bernier knows what he's doing.

NDP MP Paul Dewar said he's "created a diplomatic mess," while Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion went further by suggesting Bernier should not have been appointed to the high-profile post in the first place.

"He had no experience. The prime minister made a poor choice," said Dion.

Clarification accepted, ambassador says

So far, there has been no response from the offices of Karzai and Khalid on Bernier's remarks. But Afghanistan's ambassador to Canada, Omar Samad, told The Canadian Press that Bernier's explanation has been accepted.

"Any doubt that was created by what was quoted has been clarified [and] if there's any misunderstandings, they have been cleared up," he said, adding that the "special nature" of Canada's relationship with the country in the fight against the Taliban helped temper any sense of insult.

"There are, of course, bounds and boundaries that need to be respected by all sides," he said. "I don't think interference in our sovereign matters is what the intention of any of our friends is because they know very well Afghans are sensitive to that."

However, some analysts say that Bernier's blunder will make it more difficult for the Afghanistan government to get rid of Khalid.

"I think it makes it more difficult for the president to act, if in fact it was his intentions to change the governor," said Peter Harder, former deputy minister of foreign affairs.

"The governor is perhaps the only winner," he added.

Canada first deployed troops to Afghanistan in early 2002 and currently has about 2,500 troops deployed as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

With files from the Canadian Press