Ottawa, Oct 4: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the country's military mission to Afghanistan could remain longer than scheduled -- an idea bound to anger opposition parties, which have a majority in Parliament.
Canada's 2,500 troops in the southern city of Kandahar are due to leave in February 2009 and, until now, Harper has said he would not extend their stay without the approval of Parliament.
But yesterday he said Canada would not leave Afghanistan abruptly if it was clear local authorities were too weak to deal with the Taliban. He also said the nature of the combat mission could change beyond early 2009.
''Am I in a position to responsibly say that ... we'll be ready to leave cold turkey in February 2009? I think that's difficult to imagine,'' he told a news conference.
''But I recognize the Canadian population will accept us leaving responsibly over a time period they can understand.'' So far 71 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan. A series of recent polls shows the public is deeply divided over the mission.
''We have responsibilities toward the population of Kandahar. We accepted the responsibility to sort out security problems and I think we have to make sure -- before we leave -- that the Afghan forces can ensure their own security,'' Harper said.
''I don't think we can responsibly quit the field of battle and leave the potential for chaos in Kandahar.'' Two of the three opposition parties in Parliament insist the troops should leave on schedule while the third wants them out now.
Harper's minority Conservative government, which needs the support of at least one opposition party to stay in power -- will face a vote of confidence later this month.
''(In February 2009) the combat military role in Kandahar should come to an end and notice ought to be served on NATO now to that effect,'' Ralph Goodale of the main opposition Liberal Party told the sources.