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Jan 31, 2008
NATO keen to meet Canada's Afghan conditions: spokesman
OTTAWA -- NATO is determined to keep the Canadian Forces in southern Afghanistan and will lean on its members to find the additional 1,000 troops called for in the Manley report.
NATO has fully endorsed the findings of the independent panel headed by the former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley on Canada's future military involvement in Afghanistan, and also threw its full weight behind Prime Minister Stephen Harper's efforts to persuade allies to supply more troops to southern Afghanistan -- the key condition for Canada continuing its combat mission beyond February 2009.
"We will work with Canada and play our part in support of Prime Minister Harper's efforts to find those other contributions," NATO's chief spokesman James Appathurai said Wednesday in an exclusive interview with the Canwest News Service from Brussels.
Mr. Harper spoke Wednesday with President George W. Bush about Afghanistan and the Manley report, underscoring to Mr. Bush that, unless Canada was able to secure additional combat troops and equipment from NATO allies, Canada's mission in Afghanistan will not be extended.
As Mr. Harper received NATO's endorsement, the Conservatives continued to come under fire in the House of Commons over its handling of Afghan detainees, particularly a new policy that prevents Canada from handing over suspected Taliban insurgents to local authorities.
But Canwest News has learned that Afghanistan National Army soldiers working beside Canadian "mentors" continue to detain prisoners.
Detainees taken under such circumstances are transported directly to local Afghan jails.
Their treatment is not monitored by Canadian troops or Canadian government officials, a well-placed source in Kandahar has told Canwest.
The arrangement appears to circumvent rules that now prevent Canadians from delivering suspected insurgents to Afghan detention facilities. That practice ended in November because of concerns that the detainees, if released to Afghan authorities, might be subjected to torture.
One "credible" claim of torture was made by a prisoner transferred under the old system. The report was not immediately made public, nor was the resulting change in Canadian policy. The delay has caused a political uproar in Ottawa.
Sources have told Canwest that suspected insurgents apprehended by Canadian troops are, in fact, now being held at a detention centre at Kandahar Airfield, and are being treated in accordance with the Third Geneva Convention.
Deputy leader Michael Ignatieff accused the government of misleading Canadians and their NATO allies on the treatment of detainees.
"We communicate regularly with NATO officials," said Defence Minister Peter MacKay.
Mr. Appathurai said NATO was following the detainee issue "very carefully" but did not want to become involved in the "Canadian debate."
NATO's endorsement of Mr. Manley's findings amounted to a clear rejection of the Liberals' position, and provided a shot in the arm for Mr. Harper as he tries to persuade the Liberals to support the continuation of the mission with a vote in the House of Commons later this spring.
"A wholesale shift of the operation from being able, as necessary, to do combat to a training mission -- exclusively a training mission -- would from NATO's point of view simply be too soon," Mr. Appathurai explained.
"It's the same position as the Manley report," he added. "We share it completely."
Liberal leader Stephane Dion said he is still waiting for a specific proposal from Mr. Harper, as he continued to reject the underlying finding of the report of the former Liberal deputy prime minister and foreign minister.
"The combat mission must end in February 2009 and we need a timeline," Mr. Dion said. "It's not good for NATO and for the mission."
As far as NATO was concerned, Mr. Appathurai said it wants Canada to stay in Kandahar to build on strategic gains already made in fighting the Taliban insurgency there.
"Let there be no doubt that Kandahar is the spiritual heartland of the Taliban. It is important strategically. Canada has done a great job there," he said. "We would not want to see a situation where Canada was unable find a way to continue."
Mr. Appathurai said NATO remains committed to its core exit strategy -- training enough Afghan army and police to be able to provide a competent level of security in their country without the aid of Western forces.
NATO needs more military trainers, and the demand for them will grow even further to keep up as ranks of new Afghan army recruits continue to swell, he said.
"We definitely need to step up our training effort, there's no doubt about that. But what we can't yet do is take our foot off the pedal when it comes to the military operations."
NATO defence ministers will meet next week in Vilnius, Lithuania, but Mr. Appathurai said that no breakthroughs are expected in finding extra troops.
"We will try to stimulate further offers. It is not a force generation conference. The defence ministers won't come with packages of this and that," said Mr. Appathurai.
Any breakthroughs will have to wait until NATO leader meet in early April in Bucharest, Romania.
Mr. Harper agreed with another key Manley recommendation and will lead a diplomatic offensive to press his 25 fellow NATO allies for more troops. In particular, Canada wants a country to partner with in Kandahar to share the combat burden, which has so far claimed the lives of 78 soldiers and one diplomat.
"We cannot, as NATO headquarters, force anybody to do anything," said Mr. Appathurai.
"We can play our part through the military headquarters to support the bilateral discussions that Prime Minister Harper will be having."
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