ALAN FREEMAN - Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion served notice on Prime Minister Stephen Harper that he can forget the idea of persuading the three main opposition parties to agree on extending Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan past February, 2009.
"This consensus will never exist," Mr. Dion told a news conference yesterday called to mourn the death of six more Canadian soldiers in southern Afghanistan.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Harper gingerly stepped aside from his steadfast commitment to the Afghan mission, making it clear that Canada's role in the volatile south will end in February of 2009 unless a consensus can be reached in Parliament to approve an extension.
He has since insisted that he still strongly supports the mission, yet he is clearly speaking as if the current mission will be over in 18 months.
"We are going to need, obviously, some support from the opposition parties if we want to start a new mission after 2009," he told The Hill Times newspaper last week. "We need that support, we need the public and the Parliament behind men and women when we send them into dangerous missions."
Mr. Dion said that with no political consensus possible, Mr. Harper should simply call NATO headquarters in Brussels and let it be known that Canada will be out of Kandahar in February of 2009.
"It's now that we should send this message," Mr. Dion said. "As long as we are unclear, they will think we will stay."
Earlier, NDP Leader Jack Layton said Canada should pull out all its troops now and not wait until 2009. "The strategy we're following is wrong; we should take our troops out," Mr. Layton said, asserting that NATO's presence in Afghanistan is only serving to increase civilian backing for the Taliban.
Mr. Dion refused to consider an immediate pullout, saying that Canada should stick to its international commitments.
In an interview published in a newspaper in his hometown riding in Quebec's Saguenay region, Labour Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn said the future of the Afghan mission will be put before Parliament in February of 2008.
A spokesman for Mr. Harper said that no announcement has been made about the date for a parliamentary vote, and noted that Mr. Blackburn was speaking about something outside his jurisdiction.
Public support for the war fell sharply last summer as casualties climbed, and it hasn't recovered, according to Tim Woolstencroft, managing partner of the polling firm the Strategic Counsel. In May, 57 per cent of Canadians opposed sending troops to Afghanistan, while 36 per cent favoured the mission.
What is particularly striking is that those who strongly oppose the mission - 28 per cent of respondents - are nearly three times as numerous as those who strongly support it - 10 per cent.
"Opposition to the mission is much more emotional," Mr. Woolstencroft said.
The growing possibility that Canada's 2,500 troops will be out of Kandahar by February of 2009 is causing mounting concern at NATO headquarters in Brussels, according to Charles Heyman, an independent British defence analyst and editor of The Armed Forces of the United Kingdom.
"It's not panic yet but it's at the nail-biting stage," Mr. Heyman said in a telephone interview.
The problem is that NATO cannot afford to lose the 2,500 Canadian troops in the south, when in fact what is needed are substantially more soldiers, he said.
"There's nobody who wants to do it. NATO couldn't get any reinforcements last year when it was begging for 2,000," he said.
In the end, the Poles agreed to send 900 troops in September, but the numbers are nowhere high enough to allow NATO to control the vast territory in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar where the Taliban are most active.
"Kandahar and Helmand are desperate. There are nowhere enough troops there. ... We don't have anywhere enough people to hold their ground. The stakes for NATO are huge," Mr. Heyman said.
"If Canada decides to leave and if NATO can't plug that gap effectively, it could spell the end of the line for NATO's out-of-area operations."
Retired major-general Lewis Mackenzie agreed that the main challenge for the NATO force is the shortage of soldiers, saying it would have to double its mission to 60,000 or 70,000 troops to gain control over the territory.
"The problem is if you're going to secure the three southern provinces, you need a tremendous number of boots on the ground," he said. "It's a numbers game.
"The future of NATO is at stake here."
Canadian troops will leave in 2009, Dion says
Prime Minister will never persuade opposition parties to agree to extend combat mission, Liberal Leader vows