O'Connor: 'We have to train Afghan army quickly'
Published Sunday, July 22, 2007 10:51PM EDT
Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor says by the time the 22nd Regiment, known as the Van Doos, takes over the mission in Afghanistan in August, the Canadian military will be shifting from combat to the classroom.
O'Connor, appearing on CTV's Question Period Sunday, said the Van Doos will be training up to four or five battalions of the Afghan army -- about 3,000 soldiers.
A small contingent from the Van Doos began arriving in Kandahar last week. Next month, there will be about 2,500 new Canadian soldiers on the ground -- 2,330 from Quebec.
O'Connor's comments come after new poll numbers emerged last week suggesting Canadians' opposition to the mission is rising.
Nationwide, opposition is at 59 per cent, but the total number of those opposed in Quebec remains higher at 75 per cent.
O'Connor said those numbers are largely due to Canadians' lack of clear understanding of Canada's successes in Afghanistan, as well as the challenges faced there.
He said there is reason to believe that the situation in Afghanistan is improving, and Canada's frontline role will soon be reduced.
O'Connor said Canadian troops recently sponsored an Afghan infantry battalion, providing intense mentorship and training, and as a result the battalion is now conducting its own operations.
He described it as a success that will be used as a model for training other battalions, and will eventually take pressure off the Canadians.
But this could also take pressure off the Conservative government, especially in Quebec where opposition to the mission runs highest.
Amir Attaran, a University of Ottawa professor with expertise on global development and governance issues, says getting the Van Doos out of harm's way is a strategic move.
"The Conservatives want to make sure that nobody out of Quebec dies," Attaran told CTV News. "The Van Doos are going to be protected from casualties even if it means the war isn't won."
NDP Leader Jack Layton, who has been calling for an early end to the mission, was also critical of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"I guess Mr. Harper feels he has to beef up his public relations strategy and I think that is unfortunate," Layton said.
O'Connor also renewed his call for other NATO nations to step up their involvement and allow their troops to take part in combat operations in the more volatile regions of the country.
At the moment, most of the heavy lifting is being done by Canada, the U.K., the Netherlands and the United States.
"It would help the situation if more NATO nations sent troops to the south and the east but we can't put all our eggs in one basket. We have to train the Afghan army as quickly as possible and that's what we're doing," O'Connor said.
With a report by CTV Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife