Canada committed to Afghan mission, Harper tells troops
Prime Minister Stephen Harper reaffirmed his government's commitment to Canadian troops serving in Afghanistan on Monday, telling hundreds of soldiers there that Canada won't "cut and run" as long as he's in charge.
"You can't lead from the bleachers. I want Canada to be a leader," Harper told about 1,000 troops at the Kandahar airfield base the day after he arrived on an unannounced visit to Afghanistan.
"Your work is about more than just defending Canada's national interests. Your work is also about demonstrating an international leadership role for our country."
Harper told the troops they have the support of the Canadian people and government on what he called the country's most challenging deployment since Korea.
- PHOTO GALLERY: The prime minister in Kandahar
"There will be some who want to cut and run, but cutting and running is not my way and it's not the Canadian way," he said, to a round of applause.
"We don't make a commitment and then run away at the first sign of trouble. We don't and we will not, as long as I'm leading this country."
The prime minister's speech came amid increasing Canadian casualties and opposition calls for a parliamentary debate on Canada's role in Afghanistan.
Maj. John Blythe said many at the base were impressed the prime minister selected Afghanistan as his first foreign trip and were gratified to hear the government supported the mission.
"The morale was at an all-time high right after his speech," he said.
Harper spends night on base
Harper arrived in Afghanistan early Sunday evening local time, accompanied by Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor. It's his first foreign trip since his Conservative government won the federal election in January.
Harper spent much of Monday morning visiting troops on the base, checking out their equipment and their living conditions. Harper said he was impressed with the facilities, especially his tour of a military hospital on the base.
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"It's amazing what they have there. It's a very small facility and they have a very wide range of diagnostic and treatment equipment," said Harper.
Also Monday, he was taken by helicopter to the Canadian provincial reconstruction team site on the edge of the city. Canadian team commander Lt.-Col. Tom Doucet says while the eventual goal is to rebuild schools, roads and infrastructure, the key issue now is security.
"Once we get rid of the bad people, we can carry on with full force in terms of the reconstruction and development," he said.
Other world leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush, have made unannounced visits to Afghanistan, but it's unusual for a such a high-profile visitor to remain overnight in the turbulent region.
Canada currently has about 2,300 troops in the country. On Feb. 28, Canadian Brig.-Gen. David Fraser assumed control over the multinational force responsible for southern Afghanistan.
Since early 2002, 10 Canadian soldiers and a diplomat have been killed in Afghanistan. Another 26 Canadian soldiers have been injured.
Canada hands over control of the mission in August. Harper suggested that could be the time for a debate on Canada's role.
"There will be, obviously, fence posts in the future where we will make future decisions about deployment, but as long as we have troops, police, diplomats, development officials, we're going to support them."
As it stands now, Canada is in for the long haul, said Harper. Canada and the international community are determined to take a failed state and create a "democratic, prosperous and modern country," he said.
Media sworn to news blackout
The Harper visit was arranged with a close eye on security and secrecy. Every journalist travelling with the prime minister had to agree not to reveal news of the visit before 6 p.m. EST on Sunday.
Media organizations were notified late Friday. The flight left early Saturday, refueled in Croatia and then headed on to Islamabad, Pakistan, where the passengers transferred to a Canadian Hercules aircraft.
Harper is expected to be back in Canada by the middle of the week.