- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2008

TORONTO (AP) Canada’s prime minister vowed Wednesday to pull troops from Afghanistan in 2011, the first time he has said Canadian forces will leave the country.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that Canadians do not want to keep soldiers in Afghanistan beyond then and that 10 years of war is enough.

“You have to put an end date on these things,” Harper told reporters during a breakfast briefing. “We intend to end it.”

Harper’s comments go beyond the agreement Parliament passed in March, which only stipulated that Canada would remove troops from Afghanistan’s southern province of Kandahar in 2011.

The prime minister’s vow to leave comes as the death toll for Canadians approaches 100 in Afghanistan. Canada has lost 97 soldiers and one diplomat in Afghanistan.

The Taliban also have warned they plan to step up attacks during Canada’s federal election campaign. Harper triggered an early election Sunday, dissolving Parliament in a bid to bolster his party’s grip on power in an Oct. 14 vote.

Harper says he expects the vote to produce another minority government but recent polls show the Conservatives could win the majority they need to rule without help from opposition parties.

Harper said Wednesday it is not a realistic goal to eradicate the insurgency by 2011.

Development assistance for the country will continue, Harper added, and a relative handful of troops would likely stay behind to offer technical support to those coalition countries that remain, Harper said.

Canada has 2,500 soldiers stationed in Kandahar province, the former Taliban stronghold that has again emerged as the epicenter of violence. The country first sent troops to Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and increased the deployment after declining a U.S. request to dispatch troops to Iraq.

Canada assumed responsibility for Kandahar’s security in 2005. Harper said Canada will have done its part by 2011 after having served in the most dangerous province in Afghanistan for six years.

“A sovereign government, at some point, has to be primarily responsible for the day-to-day security of the country,” Harper said.

Maj. Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, a retired Canadian commander formerly in charge of a U.N. force in the Balkans, criticized Harper for announcing a deadline during an election campaign.

MacKenzie said that should only be told to allies in the highest of confidence.

“I don’t like deadlines,” MacKenzie said. “I don’t like announcing deadlines to an enemy force that now says to themselves, ‘Well, we’re getting rid of the Canadians’ so let’s turn our strategic attack on some other country.”’

Harper said the Afghan mission has been the hardest part of his job as prime minister, during which time he has personally called the family of every Canadian soldier that has died.

The first time he had to do it, “I cried,” he said.

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