TORONTO Canada will extend its military mission in Afghanistan only if another NATO country puts more soldiers in the dangerous south, the prime minister said Monday, echoing the recommendation of an independent panel to withdraw without additional forces.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government is under pressure to withdraw its 2,500 troops from Kandahar province, the former Taliban stronghold, after the deaths of 78 soldiers and a diplomat. The mission is set to expire in 2009 without an extension by Canadian lawmakers.
The panel, led by John Manley, a former Liberal deputy prime minister and foreign minister, recommended last week that Canada continue its mission only if another NATO country musters 1,000 troops for Kandahar.
European allies' refusal to deploy to Afghanistan's dangerous south and east has opened a rift with Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and others which, along with the United States, have borne the brunt of Taliban violence.
The U.S. contributes one-third of NATO's 42,000-strong International Security Assistance Force mission, making it the largest participant, on top of the 12,000 to 13,000 American troops operating independently.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the alliance had no immediate reaction to the comments from Harper, who said he would begin negotiating with allies prior to the next meeting of NATO leaders in early April.
"NATO's reputation is on the line here," Harper said. "NATO's efforts in Afghanistan as a whole are not adequate, but particularly in Kandahar province ... It is the focal point of the insurgency and of the Taliban's longer term plans to return to power."
Harper said Canada has done more than its fair share.
"If NATO can't come through with that help than I think frankly that NATO's own reputation and future will be in grave jeopardy," Harper said.
Harper said he also agreed with the panel's recommendation that the defense department speed the purchase of helicopters and surveillance aircraft.
"Both of those recommendations will have to be fulfilled or Canada will not proceed with the mission in Afghanistan," he said.
Opposition parties have threatened to bring down Harper's minority government if he does not end the increasingly unpopular combat mission.
"It looks like a design for a never-ending mission," Liberal leader Stephane Dion said. "This we are completely against. We think it's a mistake for Canada, for NATO and for Afghanistan. A timeline is necessary because it gives the incentive for everyone to come with targets."
Harper has promised to consult with Dion and to put the future of the mission to a vote in Parliament, where the opposition parties hold the majority of seats.
Harper declined to detail how Canadian soldiers have been handling detainees in Afghanistan since November, when they stopped transferring prisoners to local authorities after a prison visit showed evidence of torture. The government only announced the change last week.
"We are not going to publicly discuss how many Afghan prisoners we have and where they are," Harper said.