John Manley says his new report on Canada's role in Afghanistan points to the progress being made in that country as well as the challenges that still lie ahead.

The panel that Manley headed recommends Canada extend its military mission to Afghanistan indefinitely, with a new emphasis on diplomacy, training and reconstruction -- provided NATO antes up more troops from other countries to relieve combat pressure from Canadian soldiers.

Speaking Wednesday on CTV's Canada AM, the former Liberal cabinet minister said there are many reasons to hope that there will be a successful conclusion to the mission.

"When I was there essentially six years ago today there was no Afghan army, nothing," Manley said.

"There were some warlords with groups of militia, but over the past six years the building of the Afghan army has possibly been the greatest success we've seen along with successful democratic elections."

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.

Manley said Afghanistan is a complex mission with many challenges, and it's too simple to say Canada should fully abandon combat duties by a hard-and-fast date.

"We agree we need to do less combat and more training, but there is an important thing to remember, that in the context of Afghanistan much of the training is a combat role. You're going out with the compliments of the Afghan army and doing combat with them."

He said Canada shouldn't simply set an exit date, but should set "task-oriented" goals, meaning should begin withdrawing from combat duties that when the Afghan National Army demonstrates an ability to take over.

He said the panel has offered "the best possible advice" and come up with a set of recommendations he believes the Liberal party should be able to support.

Scott Taylor, editor of Esprit de Corps magazine said there's little in the report that he hasn't heard before and he was disappointed with the recommendations.

"The things we heard about changing the focus to training, that we need to get away from the combat mission -- we've been hearing that for months as well, and the question is why haven't we been doing this up until now? We've been there for six years, NATO has been there for six years."

He said the report spent too much time criticizing NATO for its role and include more specifics about how Canada's focus could change, especially in regards to bringing the Afghan army to the point where it could actually take on the lion's share of the combat work.

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.

After the release of the report, Liberal Leader Stephane Dion said his party still had "strong reasons" to call for withdrawing troops next year and switching Canada's focus to a non-combat role.

"We have carried this mission during three years and it's time for Canada to do something else in Afghanistan," Dion told reporters in Kitchener, Ont.