Parliament to decide Afghan role

Two cabinet ministers have signalled that Parliament will decide Canada’s future role in Afghanistan when the Conservative government settles on a precise configuration for the new mission.

OTTAWA — Two cabinet ministers have signalled that Parliament will decide Canada’s future role in Afghanistan when the Conservative government settles on a precise configuration for the new mission.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay told the Commons defence committee on Thursday that Canada will not leave Afghanistan completely after the combat mission ends in 2011.

The role will change, however, from war-fighting to development and training.

The federal cabinet has the authority to define the mission on its own, but MacKay says the Tory government is committed to the motion passed by Parliament in March 2008 to withdraw the country’s battle group from Kandahar, starting in July 2011.

“Until such time as there is a new motion before Parliament or a new decision taken, we will respect the guidelines and the direction from the existing motion,” the minister said following his committee appearance.

His remarks echoed Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary to the Foreign Affairs minister, who told the Commons in an impromptu debate on Afghanistan earlier in the week that the future mission will be brought before MPs.

“I can tell the honourable member that when the mission is debated after 2011 by Parliament, he, as the Liberal foreign affairs critic, will have an opportunity to full participate in that debate,” Obhrai said in response to a question from Liberal MP Bob Rae.

“The (Commons Afghanistan) committee will participate. Canadians will participate to indicate how the mission will go after 2011 should go, while taking into account the strong values and past contributions. I can tell the honourable member we are looking forward to that debate.”

Both comments are the clearest statements the Conservatives have made about how the future of the costly and deadly involvement in Afghanistan will unfold.

The fighting has killed 131 soldiers and a diplomat. Cost estimates for both the military and aid portions of the operation range from $11 billion to $13 billion.

MacKay side-stepped the question of how Canada will carry out a development mission while a Taliban insurgency rages in many parts of southern Afghanistan.

It is generally accepted that diplomats, development and aid workers will need protection, but the minister refused to say whether a small contingent of Canadian troops will provide that security — or if the dangerous role will be left to the Americans and other NATO allies.

There are many “moving parts” in making the decision about what the mission will look like, not the least of which is what direction the U.S. administration intends to take, MacKay said.

Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh said by offering up a debate the Conservatives are laying the groundwork for a new combat mission because any discussion must look at all options.

“I think if they had a majority we’d be into another combat mission,” he said.

U.S. President Barack Obama is deciding whether to adopt a new beefed-up counter-insurgency strategy, which could include up to 40,000 more American troops.

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