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Cablegate: Pm Harper Seeks Afghan Extension, with Caveats

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RUEHBUL/AMEMBASSY KABUL PRIORITY 0160
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UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 OTTAWA 000141

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREL MOPS AF CA
SUBJECT: PM HARPER SEEKS AFGHAN EXTENSION, WITH CAVEATS

REF: A. OTTAWA 107
B. OTTAWA 124

1. (SBU) Summary: PM Harper publicly voiced his agreement with the
Manley panel's call for an extension of Canada's mission in Kandahar
after February 2009 - as long as NATO provides additional troops and
equipment to help out (ref a). He pledged personally to take the
lead to press Canada's allies abroad and promised a Parliamentary
vote "this spring," likely after the Bucharest Summit. Liberal
leader Dion separately called for greater transparency, but
essentially agreed that Canadian Forces should continue to play a
role in Afghanistan even after February 2009. While PM Harper has
once again underscored the government's resolve to maintain an
active presence in Kandahar and Afghanistan well beyond February
2009, he adroitly put the onus on NATO partners to help out more in
order to enable him to return from the Bucharest Summit with
sufficient commitments to lessen the vulnerabilities of Canadian
Forces and win the controversial Parliamentary vote on Afghanistan.
End summary.

"A CLEARLY COMPELLING CASE"

2. (SBU) In a rare press conference on January 28, Prime Minister
Stephen Harper praised the Independent Panel on Canada's Future Role
in Afghanistan (aka the Manley panel) for having produced an
"in-depth" and "balanced" report, which PM Harper said had made a
"clearly compelling" case for the continuation of the mission -- if
NATO partners are willing to provide "substantially" more troops and
additional military equipment in Kandahar. He underlined the
importance of the continuation of the mission to the security of
Canada and the world as well as to Canada's international
reputation, and cited Canada's obligation to the people of
Afghanistan and the sacrifices of Canadian troops. He said that
Canada had already begun in the past two years to shift emphasis to
rebuilding, reconstruction, good governance, and democracy in
Afghanistan, as well as strengthening combat forces on the ground,
as the panel had called for. He admitted that the Afghan issue had
brought him "more headaches and heartaches" than any other issue
since he assumed office in 2006, and that the situation on the
ground remained "complex and difficult."

3. (SBU) PM Harper explicitly endorsed the recommendation of the
panel that there could be no fixed deadline to Canada's commitment
in Afghanistan, while he commented that the mission would warrant
regular reviews, perhaps in two to three years' time.

A DIPLOMATIC "FULL-COURT PRESS"


4. (SBU) PM Harper nonetheless made clear that an extension of
Canada's mission was contingent on additional support from NATO
partners. He said that the Manley panel's report had provided
Canada with "tremendous ammunition" to press NATO allies to provide
more resources for the Kandahar deployment, but said he was
"optimistic" that NATO would deliver. He promised personally to
lead a "full court press" in advance of the April 2-4 NATO summit in
Bucharest. He emphasized that NATO's efforts in Afghanistan and
especially in Kandahar were not adequate, and warned that NATO's
reputation is "on the line," adding that, if NATO cannot succeed in
Kandahar, "it will ultimately not do it anywhere."

5. (SBU) PM Harper claimed that the Canadian government had already
ordered new helicopters and UAVs for Canadian Forces, but still
faced time lags for delivery given worldwide demand. He promised to
Qfaced time lags for delivery given worldwide demand. He promised to
work to move Canada's needs higher up on the priority delivery lists
as well as to seek additional equipment from NATO partners.

A PARLIAMENTARY VOTE IN THE SPRING

6. (SBU) PM Harper said that he had begun to prepare the ground for
a parliamentary vote to extend the mission by reaching out to
Liberal leader Stephane Dion on January 27, and that he hoped to do
so again in a few days. Harper added that the Cabinet had already
reached a "tentative conclusion" on how to proceed, and would share
that with Dion to avoid "springing" anything on him. He said that
he had not spoken with any other Liberals, notably deputy Liberal
leader Michael Ignatieff (who had supported the extension of the
combat mission in 2006), in order to avoid any impression of
undermining Dion. He pledged that all parties would have a "few
weeks" to study and debate the report before the vote. He admitted
that some parties might use the issue to play election politics, but
pointedly appealed to the Liberals to rise above partisanship. He
predicted a vote some time "this spring," but promised that the
Parliamentary debate would begin before the Bucharest Summit.

DION RESPONDS


OTTAWA 00000141 002 OF 002


7. (SBU) Dion subsequently complained to reporters that the Prime
Minister had been "vague" and seemed to have provided only "a recipe
for a never-ending mission." He called upon the government to
clarify next steps on diplomacy, treatment of detainees (a hot topic
in the first Question Hour of the new Parliamentary session on
January 28), and NATO's plans for rotation of troops, which Dion
labeled a "test for NATO." He stated that the Liberal Party
believes that Canadian Forces should indeed remain in Afghanistan
after February 2009, but said that it was now up to the government
to design "something that makes sense" in lieu of the current combat
mission. He called for greater transparency from the government, a
theme also of the Manley panel recommendations. He said that the
ultimate Liberal position will depend on what, exactly, the Prime
Minister formally proposes, but predicted that the House of Commons
would need to debate and discuss the policy "at great length,"
pointedly citing the six hour limit the government had set before
the 2006 vote on the mission's extension.

COMMENT

8. (SBU) While PM Harper has once again underscored the
government's resolve to maintain an active presence in Kandahar and
Afghanistan well beyond February 2009, he adroitly put the onus on
NATO partners to help out more in order to enable him to return from
the Bucharest Summit with sufficient commitments to lessen the
vulnerability of Canadian Forces and win the controversial
Parliamentary vote on Afghanistan. With the Bloc Quebecois and the
New Democratic Party already ruling out any support for the
mission's extension in any form, the government will need to craft
an approach that will make the extension palatable enough to the
Liberals so that they can at least abstain in good conscience, or
even possibly vote in favor. It is unlikely that the Liberals will
want to use this particular vote to bring down the government,
probably judging that the electorate would rather focus an election
on economic or environmental issues than on one with national
security implications. PM Harper may have boxed himself into a bit
of corner, however, by stating the government had already placed
orders for key new military equipment when that procurement process
is far from complete; he will likely face some tough questioning on
these acquisitions in upcoming Parliamentary Question Hours.
WILKINS

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