The Manley panel has recommended extending Canada's military mission in Afghanistan indefinitely, with a new emphasis on diplomacy, training and reconstruction.

The 90-page report released Tuesday doesn't put any time limit on ending the Canadian mission.

"The Canadian combat mission should conclude when the Afghan National Army is ready to provide security in Kandahar province," it said.

However, that extension should come with some commitments from Canada's NATO partners, the panel says, including:

  • The deployment of a new 1,000-soldier battle group in Kandahar province, allowing Canada to focus on training the Afghan National Army.
  • Obtaining new medium-lift helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles by February 2009.

The current mission is slated to end by that date.

"Either NATO believes this is its most important mission, or they don't," John Manley, the former Liberal cabinet minister who chaired the five-member panel, told a news conference after the report's release. If it doesn't, Canada should reconsider putting its soldiers in harm's way, he said.

Canada already has a heavy commitment and can't add more troops on its own, Manley said.

The United States is sending an additional 3,000 Marines to southern Afghanistan this spring, but Manley noted that was a temporary deployment.

He told CTV Newsnet's Mike Duffy Live that Canada needs to pull its weight in the international community if it wants to have influence.

"Somebody once said we can't sit at the G8 table and every time the waiter comes with the bill excuse ourselves and go to the washroom," he said.

Manley noted, however, for the last couple of years, Canada has been "paying the bill" and should use its "voice" to argue for more troops.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed the panel in October to consider at least four possible options for Canada's involvement in Afghanistan. A parliamentary vote on the mission's future is expected some time this spring.

Harper called the report "substantial,'' adding, "the government has every intention of looking at it carefully in detail."

A full-day cabinet meeting has been scheduled for Thursday to discuss the report.

Liberal Leader Stephane Dion said in Kitchener, Ont. he would comment on the report after he's had a chance to read the document.

However, he repeated the earlier Liberal position that the party wants to see Canada's combat role end by February 2009.

Success possible

The report noted the many grim obstacles in Afghanistan:

  • Regional instability;
  • Slow progress on reconstruction and development;
  • Mounting insecurity and violence; and,
  • Corruption, criminality and increasing poppy production.

However, "the panel is convinced that Canadian objectives in Afghanistan are both honourable and achievable," the report said.

The main objective should be contributing, "with others, to a better governed, stable and developing Afghanistan whose government can protect the security of the country and its people," it said.

Premature withdrawal before that objective is achieved would cause more harm than good to Canada, the panel warned.

Among its other recommendations:

  • Canada should step up its international diplomatic efforts, and Harper should lead that effort. With a key NATO meeting in Bucharest, Romania coming up in April, the panel recommended that Parliament defer any vote until after that meeting;
  • Canada's aid and development efforts should focus more on efforts that will aid the Afghan people directly, with some "signature" projects that show Canada's contribution;
  • More effort must be put into measuring the effectiveness of Canada's military and civilian efforts in Afghanistan;
  • Better communication with Canadians on how the mission is going; and,
  • Canada must make "forceful representations" with Afghanistan's neighbours, especially Pakistan, about the need to cultivate security and stability in Afghanistan.

"Helping to build a more stable, better governed Afghanistan with a growing economy is, we believe, an achievable Canadian objective. But success is not a certainty. The war in Afghanistan is complicated. The future there is dangerous and can frustrate the most confident plan or prediction," it said.

"After our three months of study, however, it is our conviction that the recommendations in our report -- with their attached conditions -- together carry a reasonable probability of success. In the circumstances now prevailing, that is the strongest assurance that can be credibly given."

Canada's sacrifice

About 2,500 Canadian troops serve in Afghanistan at any one time. There are 41,700 troops from 39 countries serving under the International Security Assistance Force. Twenty-six of those nations are NATO members.

From fiscal 2000-2001 to 2006-07, Canada has spent $6.1 billion on its military engagement in Afghanistan. Seventy-seven Canadian troops and one diplomat have died in Afghanistan since 2002. Canada has suffered the worst casualties, on a proportional basis, of any foreign force serving in Afghanistan.

"... The panel could elicit no conclusive explanation for the disproportionately high casualty rates suffered by Canadians in Afghanistan. This issue warrants closer scrutiny by the government," the report said.

Polls have shown that Canadians would prefer that this country's soldiers return home when the current mandate expires.

"Countries like Canada have an important role to play -- projecting our values, standing for the rights of individuals, of the human security of people whose own governments can't protect them," Manley said.

"We're a rich country. We've got to do some of this stuff."

He noted that Canada was on a UN "blue helmet" (peacekeeping) mission in Rwanda in 1994, "and the result was genocide."

Manley said, "There are times when we have to count, there are times when it matters ... (that) we are prepared to be out there, and we're prepared to pay the price because that's what you expect of a country like Canada."

Carleton University professor Elinor Sloan, a supporter of the mission, told Newsnet she found Manley's words to be one of the more eloquent statements on why Canada should stay in Afghanistan.

Sloan said people tend to forget the security reason for the Afghan mission, noting the Taliban provided a home for al Qaeda when that global Islamist terror network planned the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the United States.

"That security issue's not going to go away. Canada needs to be there for the long haul," she said.