Prime Minister Stephen Harper has officially named a five-member panel to advise on the future involvement of Canada in Afghanistan.

Harper said at a news conference in Ottawa on Friday that the group was non-partisan and will come up with recommendations on a course of action for when Canada's NATO commitment in Afghanistan expires in February 2009.

Former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley will head the group, which includes:

  • Derek Burney, Canada's former ambassador to Washington and former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney
  • Respected broadcaster Pamela Wallin, who was Canadian consul general in New York
  • Former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Jake Epp
  • Paul Tellier, former Clerk of the Privy Council and former president and CEO of Canadian National Railway and Bombardier

Harper said he has asked the panel to examine four main options for the future of the Afghanistan mission:

  • Option One -- continue training the Afghan army and police with the goal of creating a self-sufficient indigenous security force in Kandahar province so that Canadian troops can withdraw in February 2009
  • Option Two -- focus on reconstruction work in Kandahar, which would require other countries to take over security role
  • Option Three -- shift Canadian security and reconstruction efforts to another region in Afghanistan
  • Option Four -- withdraw all Canadian military forces after February 2009 except for small contingent to provide security for aid workers and diplomats

Harper said the panel is also free to consider other options but that in the end Parliament will ultimately decide which route to take.

Manley, who was alongside Harper for the announcement, said Afghanistan represents an enormous opportunity for Canada to play a meaningful role in a globally significant arena.

Still, he said Afghanistan also represents a massive challenge to Canada's resources and capabilities.

"In carrying out our work the panel will be cognizant of the sacrifice Canadians have already made in helping the Afghan people, as well as progress achieved and challenges remaining," said Manley.

He said the panel will also consider the overarching objectives of the United Nations and NATO missions in Afghanistan.

NATO wants Canada to keep combat troops in Afghanistan after February 2009 -- a course of action Harper supports.

Harper dismissed suggestions he's trying to avoid debate on Afghanistan.

"You know the government can't take the issue off the table,'' he told a news conference, with Manley by his side.

"Afghanistan is a major public policy issue and it will be addressed in (next week's) throne speech. What I've said the government wants to do . . . is make sure we have a rational and considered debate.''

Deciding Canada's role once the current mission expires in February 2009 promises to be the hottest issue in Parliament when it resumes sitting next week.

NDP Leader Jack Layton has already reacted to the proposal, saying elected officials should be directing policy on Afghanistan.


Germany's lower house of Parliament voted 454-79 on Friday to support the extension of that country's mission in Afghanistan for another year.

Chancellor Angela Merkel had argued strongly for keeping the troops there, saying Germany must not "leave Afghanistan in the hands of the terrorists."

Germany's 2,800 ground troops are in northern Afghanistan, where there is relatively little insurgent activity. Europe's largest nation has balked at the idea of having them take part in the heavy fighting in the south.

Canada's 2,500 troops are operating in Kandahar province, one of the most volatile in Afghanistan. Seventy-one Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have died in Afghanistan since 2002.

Meanwhile, Mullah Omar called Friday for Afghanistan's neighbours to help the Taliban topple the government of President Hamid Karzai and force foreign troops out of the country.

The fugitive leader's message was carried on a website known to be used by Islamist militant groups.

The message hasn't been confirmed yet, nor is it clear when it was posted. However, the message carried a greeting for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which is set for Saturday in Canada.

Karzai has made peace overtures to the insurgents. But the Taliban and warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the militant group Hezb-i-Islami, have said foreign troops must leave first.

Afghanistan is going through its most violent year since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001. An estimated 5,100 people have died so far this year in insurgency-related violence.

With files from The Associated Press