Canada in talks with U.S. to take over security for diplomats in Afghanistan

HALIFAX — Defence Minister Peter MacKay has opened talks with other nations asking them to provide a security force for diplomats and development workers when the Canadian army withdraws from Kandahar in 2011.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay

HALIFAX — Defence Minister Peter MacKay has opened talks with other nations asking them to provide a security force for diplomats and development workers when the Canadian army withdraws from Kandahar in 2011.

He said U.S. troops would be able to fill the gap left by departing Canadian soldiers — an assertion backed up Friday by U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

MacKay said he’s had talks on the matter with the Americans, but no firm conclusion has been reached.

But the announcement, following a meeting with Gates, did little to dampen a political firestorm over the Afghan torture controversy that has been dogging MacKay and the governing Conservatives.

MacKay did tone down his rhetoric over intelligence officer Richard Colvin, whose bombshell allegations set off more urgent questions Friday from the opposition in the House of Commons.

After painting Colvin as a Taliban dupe and saying his testimony to a special Commons committee wasn’t credible, MacKay said Friday that the attacks weren’t “personal.”

In the Commons, Liberal MP Ralph Goodale said MacKay was “out to shoot the messenger, but the more he called Richard Colvin a liar, the more the minister contradicted himself.” He repeated opposition calls for an independent judicial inquiry.

Transport Minister John Baird rebuffed the call, saying Colvin’s “allegations are nothing short of hearsay, sometimes second- or even third-hand information, or worse yet, information that came directly from the Taliban.”

In Halifax, MacKay also deflected questions about Colvin as he tried to turn attention to the proposed 2011 end-date of the Afghanistan mission.

“We have discussions with other countries, including the United States, around issues of force protection on certain projects,” MacKay said.

The Canadian army is set to end combat operations in Kandahar in July 2011, but the development mission will continue. MacKay had not previously explained how that would be possible without Canadian troops.

MacKay said U.S. soldiers already patrol one of the country’s biggest signature projects, the Dahla dam in northern Kandahar.

“It’s an example of where there will be a transfer of the security responsibilities and yet the project will continue.

“There is a means to continue that without the Canadian military (being) present.”

Military experts, notably retired chief of defence staff general Rick Hillier, have previously dismissed the notion that the Americans would gladly step in and guard Canadian diplomats and aid workers.

But Gates said picking up the Canadian burden “is very much sustainable” for the U.S.

“We know this is coming for the Dutch in 2010 and for Canada in 2011 and (NATO commander) Gen. (Stanley) McChrystal is planning appropriately,” he said.

Friday’s meeting was held at the historic Halifax Citadel prior to the opening of the German Marshall Fund security conference, where Gates was the keynote speaker.

There are 2,850 Canadian troops and aircrew serving in Kandahar, a tiny fraction of the U.S. presence.

Gates noted Canada has suffered proportionally more casualties than any other NATO nation in Afghanistan and there is great sympathy among the allies.

Later, in a speech to the inaugural Halifax security forum, Gates hinted that a decision on troop increases for Afghanistan was imminent, but warned Allies that from them the U.S. “will require more commitment and more patience.”

Sen. John McCain, who lost last year’s presidential race to Barack Obama, renewed his criticism of how long it’s taken the administration to make up its mind.

With the right amount of troops, he predict success in Afghanistan “within a year to 18 months.”

He also expressed regret that Canadian troops were pulling out.

Aside from Canada and the Netherlands, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in recent days began talking of a timeline for handing over responsibility in Helmand province to the Afghans.

It comes as the Obama administration is reportedly considering establishing its own exit strategy.

“We’re not going to do what we did in 1989 and turn our backs on Afghanistan, but what we would hope is that within a reasonable period of time that we could begin transferring responsibility for security over to the Afghans as they are capable and begin drawing down our forces,” Gates said.

“The exact timing on that will depend clearly in substantial measure on the conditions on the ground. I think everybody’s hope is it will come sooner rather than later.”

Both MacKay and Gates side-stepped questions over the controversy involving the alleged torture of Afghan prisoners.

Gates claimed to have first learned of it when he looked at the front page of the newspaper.

“I have clearly no knowledge of what is involved here,” he said.

In his speech to the security forum, Gates emphasized that there needs to be a stronger understanding and appreciation of human rights as new security operations unfold.

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