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Questions over Canada’s role in the Afghanistan war and unflattering polls have the prime minister eyeing the exits.
As for recent political musings about continuing a non-combat mission after 2011 — the date the government has set as the end of Canada’s combat role — Hillier dismissed that as the pipe dream of office flunkies.
"If you stay in the south and try to do something like training [Afghan soldiers], you will still be in combat. I don't care what [political] staffers say in the media about how they can find a way to do it. You simply will not. You will be in combat," Hillier said during an interview with the Toronto Star newspaper.
The criticism comes on the heels of Colin Kenny, chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defense, proclaiming Canada’s mission in Afghanistan a failure and calling for outright “retreat.” His sentiments echo those of many European countries also contributing troops to the war.
The Harper government is also being portrayed as doing what it can to stall a public inquiry into the transfer of prisoners by Canadian soldiers to Afghan jails, where they were allegedly tortured. International law prohibits transferring prisoners to places where they are tortured. The transfers began at least in 2006 and were stopped in early 2008.
The torture allegations were first reported in the spring of 2007 by the Globe and Mail newspaper. Government ministers claimed at the time they had no idea it was going on. But a sworn affidavit came to light last week from a Canadian diplomat in Afghanistan, stating he sent reports to Ottawa as early as May 2006, alerting them to “serious, imminent and alarming” abuse of prisoners.
Peter MacKay, then the foreign minister and now the defense minister, says those reports never reached his desk. Some observers have a hard time believing that risk-averse bureaucrats would not have pushed such troubling allegations up the political chain of command, including to the prime minister’s office.
But the inquiry to get to the bottom of it all has been suspended by legal wrangling over the Harper government’s bid to limit its scope.
It is widely expected that Obama — soon to decide on whether to send up to 80,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan — will ask Harper to keep Canada’s 2,800 soldiers in the southern province of Kandahar beyond 2011. The revelations of the past week — from prisoner abuses to Hillier’s criticisms — won’t increase confidence among Canadians about extending a mission a majority of them already oppose.
But with his eyes focused on American newscasts, who knows what Harper will do?