France heeds Canada's call for more troops

France is considering sending a new contingent of soldiers to the volatile southern regions of Afghanistan in a bid to appease Canada.

France is considering sending a new contingent of soldiers to the volatile southern regions of Afghanistan in a bid to appease Canada.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay speaks with reporters in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, Thursday. ((Murray Brewster/Canadian Press))

The country already had planned to send more troops to Afghanistan, and on Thursday, French Defence Minister Herve Morin said he would be willing to have those troops stationed in the south, where Canadians are currently working alongside British, American and Dutch soldiers.

"I said we would help the Canadians," Morin told reporters in Vilnius, Lithuania, where NATO defence ministers are meeting to discuss the mission.

On Wednesday, Canada's Conservative government announced it is tabling a motion to extend the Afghan mission beyond a scheduled February 2009 withdrawal date. MPs will likely vote on the motion in late March.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said he supports an extension under the condition that NATO sends more troops and equipment to help the 2,500 Canadian soldiers fighting the Taliban in the dangerous Kandahar region.

Morin implored Canadians to wait on making a decision. He noted final details about France's troop increase would be presented at a later date by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"Be patient," he said.

A Canadian delegation is travelling to Paris Friday to talk to French officials about the troops, CBC News has learned. It is not clear how many soldiers France will be sending, although some reports have suggested 700.

France currently has about 1,300 soldiers in Afghanistan.

'We need 1,000 troops'

Morin made the troop announcement after holding a side meeting with Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

MacKay outlined Canada's political timelines and realities to his 25 NATO counterparts at closed-door meetings on Thursday. He noted that the Afghan mission vote will be a confidence motion, meaning if it fails, the Canadian government will be dissolved and a general election will be called.

The vote will likely come prior to a key meeting of NATO leaders in Romania in April, when the alliance is hoping to finalize a new and more comprehensive strategy on Afghanistan.

MacKay stressed to NATO leaders how important it is for Canada to get more troops and support.

"It's not a negotiable item," MacKay told reporters before going into the meetings.

"We need 1,000 troops. We have to deliver on that commitment before we can extend our mission."

NATO spokesman said MacKay was clear

After the meetings, a NATO spokesperson said the defence ministers at the meeting clearly understood Canada's position.

"He couldn't have been more clear. I don't think there's any doubt as to what Canada is looking for," said James Appathurai.

Appathurai wouldn't say how the other ministers responded, only saying the mood around the table was "cautiously optimistic."

The talks are the first high-level meetings since John Manley, a former Liberal deputy prime minister, released his report on Canada's Afghan mission in January.

The report, commissioned by Harper, recommended Canadian troops withdraw in 2009 unless they are supported by 1,000 extra troops and new medium-lift helicopters and high-performance unmanned aircraft.

No rift in alliance: NATO

Bitter divisions have emerged over the reluctance of countries such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain to send combat troops to the south.

Appathurai played down headlines about a rift within the alliance, saying media reports give a "false impression of a lack of solidarity."

"They are masking the progress we are making on the ground," said Appathurai.

Germany recently rejected a request by U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates to send more troops to Kandahar, instead saying it would deploy 200 more soldiers to the calmer north to replace a Norwegian unit.

Belgium said Wednesday that it was willing to send 100 soldiers to Kandahar, specifically to guard the main airfield.

NATO ministers will meet Friday with representatives from the European Union, United Nations and the World Bank to try to press their case for more help in Afghanistan, said Appathurai.

3,000 U.S. marines to bolster mission

Washington recently announced a one-time deployment of 3,000 U.S. marines to Afghanistan, seen by some as a sign the mission is faltering.

The top Afghan official in the southern province of Kandahar said the area is counting on the marines.

"The Canadians are fine, but Americans are Americans — the mentality is different," Ahmed Wali Karzai, chairman of the provincial council in Kandahar, told the Los Angeles Times in an interview published Wednesday.

Last month, Gates told the newspaper NATO forces in southern Afghanistan didn't know how to properly combat a guerilla insurgency. He later scrambled to clarify his remarks, saying he wasn't singling out a specific country but was talking about the alliance as a whole.

With files from the Canadian Press