Canada army chief rejects noncombat Afghan mission

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s top soldier, in a move sure to be appreciated by the minority Conservative government, dismissed on Friday proposals made by the main opposition party that the military mission in Afghanistan refrain from combat operations next year.

Canada's Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier listens to Canadian troops from the NATO-led coalition at Ma'sum Ghar camp in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, October 24, 2007. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants Canada’s 2,500 troops in the southern city of Kandahar to stay in Afghanistan beyond the scheduled end of their mission in February 2009.

The opposition Liberals -- who are keeping the government alive in Parliament -- say they will only back an extension if the troops focus solely on training Afghan troops. So far 78 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan.

General Rick Hillier, the blunt-spoken chief of the defense staff, told reporters there was no chance of the soldiers being able to avoid clashes with Taliban militants.

“If you’re in Kandahar, you’re going to be in combat operations ... the Afghan army is not yet capable enough to be able to handle security by itself,” he said when asked about the Liberals’ position.

“If you’re there, you’re going to be in the middle of a firefight ... This is the home of the Taliban.”

His remarks are likely to put more pressure on Liberal leader Stephane Dion to change his position.

“With great respect to General Hillier, the overall direction of the mission is going to be determined by the government of Canada, and I presume the Parliament of Canada,” said Bob Rae, the Liberals’ foreign affairs spokesman.

“We’re not going to enter into a debate in the foyer of the House of Commons.”

Last week, Harper threatened to withdraw the mission on schedule unless NATO sends in 1,000 more troops to help bear the burden in Kandahar and the Canadian Forces get more equipment.

He made the position clear on Thursday evening in a conversation with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Harper spokeswoman Sandra Buckler said on Friday.

“The prime minister was clear that a failure to meet these conditions would result in the end of the Canadian mission a year from now,” she said.

De Hoop Scheffer committed to doing whatever he could to ensure Canada was able to meet the conditions, Buckler added.

He says he will ask Parliament to approve whatever decision he takes on extending the term and the mandate of the mission. So far he has given little indication of his plans.

Hillier also had little time for suggestions that Canada might rotate its troops to a quieter part of Afghanistan.

“You have to find a job for them. There is no job outside of the south, where you actually need extra troops right now,” he said.

Hillier openly admires the Conservative government, which has sharply boosted military spending since it took power in early 2006 after 13 years of Liberal rule.

A year ago he referred to the military’s “decade of darkness” under the Liberals, prompting the Liberal defense spokesman to call him a Conservative prop.

Harper said last week that the Afghan mission was perhaps his biggest headache. He is under fire for not revealing that Canadian troops had stopped transferring detainees to Afghan authorities last November because of credible fears they could be tortured.

Hillier declined to comment on media reports quoting a senior Afghan official as saying Canadian troops were holding around 20 detainees.

With additional reporting by Randall Palmer; Editing by Peter Galloway