OTTAWA (AFP) — Canada will withdraw its 2,500 troops from volatile southern Afghanistan in 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday, yielding to opposition demands for a firm exit strategy.
However, the opposition Liberals have not yet publicly endorsed the plan.
Previously, they had agreed with the ruling Conservatives for the need to maintain troops in Afghanistan to 2011 only if NATO allies send reinforcements soon.
But they differed on whether Canadian soldiers should continue hunting insurgents beyond their current mandate of February 2009, or stick to a non-combat role in Kandahar province.
The stalemate could have led to snap elections in March, if all three opposition parties united to topple the minority Conservatives over its motion to extend the mission.
Now, "it seems obvious that we've arrived at a consensus that can be submitted to Parliament for ratification," Harper said in a speech to the Conference of Defense Associations.
"We both agree that Canada should continue the mission until 2011 and (that) we should leave operational decisions to our commanders on the ground in Afghanistan," he said.
Thus, "Canada will end its presence in Kandahar as of July 2011, completing redeployment from the south by December of that year," he said.
If both parties agree, the motion will be presented to parliament for ratification shortly, before a NATO summit in April, he said.
But the Liberals still want clarification on some nuances, the Liberal party's MP for defense Denis Coderre told AFP.
"We wanted the mission to be changed, we wanted it to have an end date, and we wanted it refocused so that it is not solely military but is balanced with diplomacy and development," Coderre said.
The oddly bipartisan motion states Canada would focus hereafter on training Afghan forces and providing security for reconstruction.
It is not clear, however, if Canadian offensive operations would cease, as demanded by the Liberals.
"Firm targets and timelines for the training, equipping and paying of the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, the members of the judicial system and the members of the correctional system" would be set, the motion states.
If NATO does not send reinforcements, medium lift helicopters and drones soon, as requested, Canada would pull out at the end of its current mandate of February 2009, it says.
Earlier, NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called for more international commitment to the fight against the Taliban, saying extremists "are not after destabilizing the Afghan society, killing the Afghan society, but also ruining our societies."
Countries contributing to a 50,000-strong NATO-led force in Afghanistan must also rid themselves of the notion that the mission is failing, he said after talks with Afghan leaders.
"This is not considered by NATO as a mission of choice," he told reporters. "It is a mission of necessity."
Scheffer noted ISAF had swollen by 8,700 soldiers over the past year to number about 50,000 and he was confident of more support in the coming year.
In recent weeks, Canada's prime minister and Defense Minister Peter MacKay have pressed NATO allies to send 1,000 additional troops to bolster the Canadian forces in Kandahar.
The main contributors to post-Taliban Afghanistan -- notably Britain and the United States -- have also called for more "burden-sharing" in the grueling fight against the rebels.
About a dozen countries are represented in the south, the violence hotspot where opium cultivation is flourishing, and taking heavy casualties that are feeding public dissatisfaction at home.
So far, only France and Poland have hinted to Ottawa they may send more help.
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