PM makes surprise visit to Afghanistan

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has responded to criticism of his government's handling of the mission in Afghanistan by making an unannounced visit to the war-ravaged country.

'I'm not here because of the polls,' Harper tells reporters

Prime Minister Stephen Harper touched down unannounced in Afghanistan Tuesday to see first-hand the development of Canadian aid projects in the war-ravaged country and to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The surprise two-day visit began Tuesday morning in the capital Kabul, where Karzai met with Harper — who was joined by Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor — to discuss the progress of Canada's mission in Afghanistan.

During a news conference at the presidential palace courtyard, Harper reaffirmed Canada's commitment to the reconstruction and defence efforts in the region, calling the mission "Canada's most important foreign policy endeavour."

He also reiterated his belief that Canadian redevelopmentaid andsecurity efforts wereimproving life for people in Afghanistan.

"Yes, there remain challenges," the prime minister said as Karzai looked on. "But our determination is strong. We are not daunted by shadows because we carry the light that defines them — the light of freedom of human rights and the rule of law."

The prime minister dismissed suggestions his trip wasin response to waning support of the Afghan mission at home, telling reporters: "I'm not here because of the polls. I'm here because it's the right thing to do."

Karzai guarantees no prisoners abused

The visit comes after Harper's government has faced weeks of criticism in the House of Commons for its handling of the war.

A key theme of opposition attacks has been the treatment of people detained by Canadian soldiers and whether they face torture after being handed over to Afghan authorities.

Karzai rejected the suggestion that any prisoners had ever been abused while in Afghan custody.

"Take my guarantee to the Canadian people on that," he said.

"I will assure the Canadian people that if there is any such incident Afghans will be the first to take me to task on it."

Praise for Canadian aid

Karzai praised Canada for its efforts in Afghanistan, outlining the benefits his country has seen as a result of Canadian efforts:

  • 10,000 jobs have been created in Kandahar.
  • 30,000 people, mostly women, have had access to microcredit loans.
  • 40,000 more infants have survived childbirth.

"Have we accomplished all we are seeking? No," Karzai said. "If we leave half the way[Islamic militants] will re-emerge … Let us complete it and not abandon it half the way."

Harper saw Canadian aid work first-hand Tuesday, when he handed out pencil cases in a Kabul school funded by Canadian dollars. The Aschiana School, which receives $39,500 a year from Canada,teaches young children painting, music and how to use woodworking tools until they reach vocational age.

Harper also visited diplomats at the Canadian Embassy for a briefing on various aid projects since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.

Paul Hunter, reporting on Harper's visit for CBC News, said Harper may have chosen to focus heavily on Canada's humanitarian work in Afghanistan on Tuesday because of polls that suggest some Canadians are wary of Canada's military involvement in the country.

"I would say it's very interesting they decided to really promote the fact that we're doing more than just military in Afghanistan," Hunter said from Kandahar.

He said Harper will have more of a military focus Wednesday, when he has breakfast with some of the 2,500 Canadian soldiers stationed in Afghanistan and addresses them in a brief speech.

The Harper government has committed to the military mission only until February 2009.

Trip shrouded in secrecy

The last time Harper was in Afghanistan in March 2006, he spent three days touring military installations and camping out with soldiers.

Harper's office spared no effort to keep his surprise two-day trip shrouded in secrecy.

A call went out Friday telling journalists to pack for a warm climate and show up at a military hangar on Sunday if they wanted to join Harper on a foreign trip.

Reporters were warned they could be arrested for breathing a word about the prime minister's travel plans.

With files from the Canadian Press