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EXCLUSIVE: NATO head wants Canada to extend Afghan mission after 2014

Global News : Monday, May 14, 2012 7:38 PM

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The head of NATO says he wants Canadian soldiers to extend their stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

While Ottawa has said 900 of our remaining troops will be coming home in a couple of years, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said training Afghanistan's army is going to take time, and he wants the Canadian Forces to stay longer.

"I appreciate very much that Canada provides trainers for our training mission in Afghanistan and I hope Canada will be in a position to continue that contribution also after 2014," Rasmussen said Monday in an exclusive interview with Global National's Sean Mallen at NATO's headquarters in Brussels.

"From that time on, the Afghans will have full responsibility, but they still need our assistance and this is the reason why we will continue a training mission," the NATO Secretary General added.

"And I hope Canada will continue to support our training mission."

It appears Prime Minister Stephen Harper is open to keeping Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan a little longer. "We will assess what is necessary to make sure that Afghanistan continues to progress toward being a state that is not a threat to global security, and that is able to take care of its own security," he said in Ottawa on Monday.

"Those are our objectives and beyond that, we haven't made any final decisions."

The opposition, however, doesn't see any wiggle room, and says Canadian soldiers should be out of Afghanistan by 2014. Now it's wondering if Ottawa is cooking up a deal with NATO to extend the mission.

"We want the PM to tell the truth – what we're hearing or reading between the lines is that there is something going on between Canada and the U.S. and perhaps NATO – and they're not coming clean on it," said NDP defence critic Jack Harris.

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae says Afghanistan's military will just have to be on its own in two years, and Harper should come clean about the withdrawal date. "I think the PM needs to be clear in his position."

But some people agree with Rasmussen. Andre Gerolymatos, a security analyst at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., says getting out of Afghanistan too early could have disastrous consequences.

"Leaving now – and that's the choice that the Canadian government has to make – would mean that we abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban, and if we are prepared to do that – then we pack up and go."

Regardless, Harper does not have to consult Canadians – or even Parliament – on extending the Afghan training mission, because the soldiers would be in a non – combat role. The decision doesn't have to be put to a vote.

Also Monday, Human Rights Watch slammed NATO for not investigating 72 civilian casualties during the 2011 bombing campaign in Libya. The New York – based advocacy group called on the Western alliance to acknowledge the casualties and compensate survivors.

Rasmussen said, "We operated in Libya to protect the civilian population and we did so very successfully. We prevented a massacre and we conducted our operation with a minimum of collateral damage. It was really a precision campaign."

When asked if the 72 deaths constitute 'minimum' casualties, the NATO official told Global News, "We are not in a position to confirm these civilian casualties."

With files from Global National's Sean Mallen, Mike Le Couteur, and The Associated Press

© Shaw Media Inc., 2012. All rights reserved.