Canada Votes to Extend Mission in Afghanistan

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 18, 2006

TORONTO, May 17 -- Canada's House of Commons narrowly voted Wednesday to keep Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan until at least 2009, despite public misgivings about following the U.S. military's lead there and fears that the country is losing its traditional peacekeeping role.

The late-night vote in Parliament was close enough to surprise Prime Minister Stephen Harper, he acknowledged. The 308-member Commons voted 149 to 145 to extend the assignment of the 2,300 Canadian troops for two years beyond the current term, which ends in February 2007.

Faced with unexpected opposition, Harper had declared early in the six-hour debate that he would extend the military assignment unilaterally for one year if the Commons balked at the two-year extension.

"I don't think it's feasible for Canada simply to walk away in the next few months," Harper said.

The debate came as the defense department announced that an army officer had become the first female Canadian soldier to die in battle since World War II. Capt. Nichola Goddard, 26, an eight-year veteran from Calgary, was killed in fighting near Kandahar, Afghanistan, the department said, becoming the 17th Canadian killed in that country.

Increased fighting faced by Canadian troops in southern Afghanistan recently has deepened the split in public opinion polls and crystallized criticism by opponents, who say that Canada should not follow the U.S. military lead in Afghanistan.

Of approximately 26,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, about 18,000 are American. But the United States is seeking to reduce its deployment and hand off more responsibility to a NATO-led force.

Canada was part of the initial invasion of Afghanistan that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington. But it balked at joining the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and its role in Afghanistan has become increasingly divisive here, according to opinion polls.

The debate over Canada's presence in Afghanistan also underscored the diminished capabilities of Canada's military. Canada had nearly 1 million men and women in uniform during World War II, but now has only about 60,000 troops on active duty. Critics said keeping the contingent in Afghanistan would limit the country's ability to perform U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping roles -- for instance, in Darfur or Haiti.

Canada's image as a ready volunteer for U.N. peacekeeping missions is a source of pride in the country.

"This is not the traditional way of peacekeeping," said Bill Siksay, a New Democratic Party member from British Columbia. "We are there to do democratic development, not at the end of the barrel of a gun. That's not the Canadian way."

Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor acknowledged that Canada would be unable to mount another "major" operation while keeping and supporting 2,300 troops in Afghanistan. But he said Canada could "play a supportive role. We believe we can meet whatever requirements are set for us by the United Nations" in Darfur or Haiti.

Parliamentary critics complained that Harper's move in calling for a vote was an attempt to defuse a potential election issue for his minority government. Some said they supported the Afghanistan mission but opposed what they called a hasty vote.

"The question we have today is, why are we prolonging this mission for two additional years?" said opposition leader Bill Graham, who was the minister of defense under the previous Liberal government, which dispatched the Canadian soldiers to Afghanistan.

"The prime minister has placed his election policy ahead of the good of the nation," complained Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc Quebecois. "That is unforgivable."

Harper argued that the Afghanistan mission was important to protect Canada. "As long as we defend freedom, democracy and human rights, we will not be safe from attack from those who oppose it," Harper said. "Al-Qaeda has singled out Canada, among other nations, for attack. We just cannot sit back and let al-Qaeda, backed by the Taliban, return to power in Afghanistan. It simply must not happen."

He argued that Parliament's hesitation to extend the approval of the military mission would "send the wrong message" to soldiers.

"We have got men and women over there who are doing great work, and prepared to take bullets for this country," he said. "We honor those who take risks and make the ultimate sacrifice by making a commitment to staying the course.

But his critics rejected his patriotic appeal. "The prime minister says we must unfailingly support the men and women in Afghanistan," Duceppe said. "But that is not what the government is asking us to do. The government is asking us to blindly sign a blank check for the coming years."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company