Recent gaffes surrounding the military transfer of Afghan detainees shows how badly the Harper government is mishandling the Afghanistan war, Deputy Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says.

"The very least you can say is that Canada's soldiers deserve better civilian leadership than this," Ignatieff told Question Period on Sunday.

In his first interview since returning from a visit to Afghanistan in early January, Ignatieff said he was concerned about Prime Minster Stephen Harper's mismanagement of military operations there.

Ignatieff said that the public and Parliament have not received "honest answers" from the government and that Harper has to grab the mission "by the throat and pull it together."

"Afghanistan is the most important thing Canada has done in 50 years, and he's not leading," he said. "The prime minister has to act like a prime minister, and not like a partisan leader on this issue of Afghanistan."

The comments stemmed from a series of public miscues following the release of the Manley report on the future of the Canada's mission.

In November, the Canadian military stopped transferring detainees to the Afghan military after diplomats found clear evidence of torture.

But the Harper government stayed silent on the subject until the facts came to light last week in government documents filed in a lawsuit by human rights groups opposing the handling of detainees.

Sandra Buckler, director of communications in the Prime Minister's Office, this week blamed the military for not telling the government that the practice had changed. She later claimed she "misspoke."

The opposition has accused the government of not revealing the change mainly to protect itself from embarrassment.

Military leaders have reportedly been furious, saying they kept the government in the loop.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier both declined to appear on Question Period.

On Sunday, Ignatieff confirmed that he and Liberal Leader Stephane Dion had been briefed by civilian and military officials while visiting Afghanistan in January. Dion had told reporters on Friday the Prime Minister's Office had "lied" about not knowing.

Ignatieff told Question Period that Buckler had lost the confidence of the press, of Parliament and likely of the Conservative caucus.

"Frankly, I could care less about Sandra Buckler," he said. "The issue is the prime minister. He's the boss here. The Manley commission has been scathing about the failure of the prime minister to coordinate Canadian policy."


The Afghan detainees controversy is expected to dominate when Parliament resumes sitting on Monday.

NDP Leader Jack Layton told Newsnet on Sunday that two cabinet ministers now appear to have lied to the House of Commons on the Afghan detainees issue.

"(NDP defence critic) Dawn Black asked on Nov. 14 whether prisoners were being transferred -- and that they shouldn't be, given the evidence -- and the minister didn't tell the truth," he said.

"Frankly, a minister shouldn't be occupying that position if they're not going to tell the truth to Canadians about how a war is being conducted. That's certainly evidence of a deep-seated problem, and we're asking the prime minister to take action in that regard."

Laurie Hawn, the Conservative parliamentary secretary for defence, told Question Period the government is aware of what's going on in Afghanistan.

"Those are not things we talk about and that's been mentioned over and over again. That's an operational security issue."

Manley report

The Independent Panel on Canada's Future Role in Afghanistan, headed by former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley, released its report of the mission in Afghanistan on Jan. 22.

Among other suggestions, it said Harper had to take a more active role to ensure NATO support for Canadian troops, as well as "assert a stronger and more disciplined diplomatic position."

"Mr. Manley has made it very clear that the prime minister has failed to lead this mission, failed to coordinate it, and failed to tell what he needs to tell the Canadian people about the mission," Ignatieff said.

The report also said the government "should provide the public with franker and more frequent reporting on events in Afghanistan."

Panel member Pamela Wallin, a former diplomat and broadcaster, said the "information deficit" surrounding the Afghanistan mission has led to public discontent in Canada.

"It's what we all felt, in our hearts and our guts during this whole process," she told Question Period. "Now that they've got information on board, they're making smarter decisions."

Wallin said the report focuses strongly on the government's failure to allow information to flow "openly and steadily."