Bush, Rice thank Canada for 'pulling its weight' in Afghanistan

U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised Canada on Thursday for its contributions to the Afghan mission.

U.S. President George W. Bush andSecretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised Canadaon Thursday forits military's contributions to the Afghan mission.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Canadian Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier leave a news conference at the State Department in Washington on Thursday. ((Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press))

Rice called Canada an "extraordinary partner" in the NATO-led war in Afghanistan.

While there has been concern about some NATO countries not taking on their fair share of responsibilities in Afghanistan, Rice said this is not the case with Canada.

"Canada is sharing in that responsibility. Canada is pulling its weight," the secretary of state said in Washington, D.C. "The contribution of Canada is both invaluable and effective."

Rice's comments came after she met with Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier for a working lunch, after which they held a news conference.

Rice described the meeting with Bernier as a "a very fruitful discussion" that centred on issues like Afghanistan.

A few hours before Rice spoke,Bush held anews conference, during which he called Canadians and other allies in Afghanistan "brave souls."

U.S. President George W. Bush, giving a speech at the White House Thursday, said of troops from Canada and other allies: 'I've only got praise for them.' ((CBC))

"I would like to praise the Brits, the Canadians, the Dutch, the Danes and other countries for their contribution," Bush said in Washington.

"These are brave souls. They're working side by side with the Afghan forces and the U.S. forces to deal the Taliban a blow, and I've only got praise for them."

Bush and Rice's remarks about Canada were made in light ofcriticism against NATO countries like France and Germany, which have only deployed troops to parts of Afghanistan that are relatively peaceful.

Other NATO countries, like Canada, the U.S. and Britain, are stationed in volatile areas where violence regularly occurs and casualties are a frequent reality.

NATO, Canada and the U.S. have called for the responsibilities to be shared more equally.

Bernier acknowledged that Canada has seen many losses in Afghanistan, where73 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have died since the mission began in 2002.

"It's a dangerous mission but it's a mission we're proud of," Bernier said. "All our allies, they know what we suffer as Canadians, and I think they praise what we are doing."

Bush fears Afghanistan fatigue

Bush said his main fear is that countries participating in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force will decrease their commitment as the mission drags on.

"My biggest concern is that people say, 'Well, we're kind of tired of Afghanistan and, therefore, we think we're going to leave,'" he said.

"It's going to take time for this democratic experiment there in Afghanistan to work."

Bernier was asked by reporters if Canada would fall victim to Afghanistan fatigue. He said he hopes Canada will stay in the country beyond its current withdrawal deadline of February 2009.

"I hope we will be able to have our mission extended for a couple of months."

He noted this decision is up for debate. An independent panel led by former deputy prime minister John Manleyhas been tasked with gathering information on the mission and recommending what Canada's role should be after 2009.

Once the Manleyreport is submitted in January, a debate and vote will be held in Parliament. Opposition parties have already spoken out against extending the mission.

Canada currently has about 2,500 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, most of them in the volatile south. The U.S. has about 26,000 troops in the country, while the NATO force in total amounts to about 41,700 troops.

'This is a society that is evolving'

Bush said Thursday that progress was being made in Afghanistan. He said Afghan President Hamid Karzai has told him that five million Afghan children are now attending school, while the health-care system is expanding, roads are being built, and infant mortality rates are dropping.

"We checked into his assertions, and they're true," Bush said. "So this is a society that is evolving."

Rice said it's important that Afghanistan be stabilized so that it doesn't become a "safe haven for terrorists" as it was before 2001, when al-Qaeda was able tocongregate in the country to plot its Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

"We learned the hard way. Unless you do the job, and finish the job, it comes back to haunt you one way or another," Rice said.

Bush said U.S. government officials areassessing their strategies in the war in Afghanistan to see what's working and what isn't. He saidofficials are also reviewing whether conditions are improving for Afghan civilians, which Bush said they appear to be.

The U.S. is paying more attention to the Afghan mission amid concerns about rising violence this year. There have been at least 111 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan since January, making 2007 the deadliest year for U.S. troops in Afghanistan of the entire war.

An analysis done by ABC News in November showed the death rate for U.S. troops in Afghanistan is now nearly twice the rate for those in Iraq.