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Harper won't confirm report of U.S. troop pledge to Afghanistan

Prime Minister Stephen Harper would neither confirm nor deny a report that the United States has committed to providing Canada with the 1,000 extra combat troops it says it needs in southern Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper would neither confirm nor deny a report that the United States has committed to providing Canada with the 1,000 extra combat troops it says it needs in southern Afghanistan.

But Harper, speaking in Bucharest ahead of a two-day NATO summit, added he was "very confident" that Canada will secure a commitment, although it may not come during the meeting.  

Harper was asked about the media report during a panel discussion Wednesday with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and NATO's Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.  

According to the report, U.S. President George W. Bush made a personal pledge to Harper to provide the additional troops.

"I make it a habit never to speak on behalf of other people," Harper said. "We've had good discussions with our allies, and I am convinced that we will achieve our objectives and achieve it in a way that causes the overall level of troop commitment to Afghanistan to be increased, not merely shifted laterally."

Asked again about the report, Harper responded: "You'll have to ask Mr. Bush what his position is," but added, "we're very confident we'll get a commitment."

Harper also shrugged off suggestions that France was getting wobbly on bolstering its troop strength in Afghanistan.

In a speech in Britain last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged to increase France's troop presence. He did not specify a number, but news reports have said the plan would add 1,000 troop reinforcements.

But on Tuesday, French Prime Minister François Fillon appeared to whittle away at that number, saying the government may contribute "several hundred" troops. 

"We'll see what the French ultimately decide. In fairness, the French have made no commitment to us," Harper said. "Mr. Sarkozy has made no iron-clad commitment to NATO. I think anything France does over and beyond what it's already doing is a victory and is a significant step forward."

There has been no official indication, however, whether Canada will receive a commitment this week on the additional troops and equipment it is requesting in order to extend its Afghan mission past 2009.

Harper's Conservatives downplayed expectations that a deal to secure additional NATO troops for the Afghan mission would be made this week, saying they have done all they can to plead their case.

Last month, the Tories, with support from the Liberals, passed a motion that would keep Canadian soldiers in Kandahar until 2011.

The motion was contingent on two recommendations of the Manley report on Canada's role in Afghanistan: that NATO allies provide 1,000 extra troops and that Ottawa secure access to unmanned surveillance drones and large helicopters to transport Canadian troops around the region.

Speaking to CBC News, former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley said the additional troops could come from any NATO country. But he said politically, it would look better for Canada if they didn't come from the U.S.

"A lot of Canadians are still confused between the mission in Afghanistan and what the Americans were doing in Iraq which is totally different situations. I think for political optics, I'd guess the prime minister would prefer that they be from somewhere else."

No two-tier plan for Afghanistan

NATO spokesman James Appathurai told CBC News the alliance is well aware of what Canada requires in order to continue its operations in Afghanistan and is keen to find a way to fulfill those needs.

"I am hopeful and, I think, encouraged that we will find a way — maybe not today, maybe today [or] in the coming days and weeks — for Canada to stay."

The panel also confronted the issue of what has been referred to as a "two-tier" approach to Afghanistan, meaning some NATO members are not pulling their weight.

While Harper said that label is unfair, he said if there has been a "NATO failure" it's been predicting the long-term commitment needed in Afghanistan.

"It appears to me that early on NATO concluded the job was much easier than it was actually going to be," Harper said.

He said it wasn't until 2005 that NATO grasped the nature of the security problem and how that would hinder the development of the government and economy.

"Some nations, Canada and others, have put more into those efforts than others. But I think it's unfair to call it two-tier in the sense that we're saying any other nations didn't do what they initially committed to do. I think NATO allies have been pretty good at fulfilling their commitments.

"The fact of the matter is we all under-committed, we all underestimated the task and we've been compensating ever since."

Harper also met with  Karzai Wednesday, who gave words of thanks for the efforts of Canadian soldiers in helping rebuild the country.

"It means a lot to us; more than you can imagine," Karzai said.

Soldiers watching summit with interest

The full summit begins in Bucharest Wednesday night with an informal dinner between leaders of the alliance's 26 member countries. Official summit meetings are scheduled for Thursday and Friday.

Canada has about 2,500 soldiers operating in and around southern Afghanistan's Kandahar province, many of whom will be watching the NATO summit discussions with interest, the CBC's David McGuffin said.

"Certainly, there is a keen awareness of what's going on in Bucharest and a real hope that the promise that seems to be out there of more troops for Kandahar province and to help Canadians, that this will come through," he said.

Canadian soldiers interviewed by the CBC said that additional troop support would allow them to push out the security perimeter around Kandahar city, and the province as a whole.

Removing Canadian soldiers from the region altogether, however, could leave an "open road" in Afghanistan for the Taliban to regain control, Appathurai said. 

Meanwhile, Bush told the leaders in a speech that NATO must increase its efforts to root out terrorism in Afghanistan, invoking recent video threats made by Osama bin Laden against Europe.

"We need to take the words of the enemy seriously," he said. "The terrorist threat is real, it is deadly, and defeating this enemy must be the top priority of the NATO alliance."

With files from the Canadian Press