Afghan Leader Wants Canada's Troops to Stay

Thirty-five Canadian troops have died in Afghanistan in the past three months. This week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told the Canadian parliament that the nation's troops are vital to the peackeeping effort.

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Support seems to be flagging in Canada for that country's military role in Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai came to the Canadian parliament Friday hoping to change some minds. He urged Canada to keep its troops in Afghanistan for as long as it takes to secure peace there.

But Afghanistan has become more deadly for Canadian forces. Thirty-five Canadians have died there, 25 in just the past three months. Richard Reynolds reports from Toronto.

RICHARD REYNOLDS: Hamid Karzai is only the second foreign leader to speak before Canada's parliament this decade, the other being U.S. President George Bush. Friday morning, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a glowing overview of Karzai's accomplishments just before introducing him to the House.

Prime Minister STEPHEN HARPER (Canada): The president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai.

(Soundbite of applause)

REYNOLDS: His reception was extraordinarily warm, like the welcome given a rock star, not the one usually given to a politician. The applause went on for almost a full minute.

(Soundbite of applause)

REYNOLDS: Many members of parliament also banged their desks in a traditional sign of approval in the House. But while many members may like the charismatic Karzai, they still want Canadian troops in Afghanistan brought home.

Just ten months ago, during the debates held before Canada's January parliamentary election, Afghanistan wasn't even an issue. Only one question in four debates was asked about Canada's military presence in the country. But then in the spring, things changed. Canadian troops were moved to Kandahar and were suddenly involved in frontline fighting with a renewed Taliban, and soldiers started dying. As political scientist Nelson Wiseman explains, public support in Canada began to drop.

Professor NELSON WISEMAN (University of Toronto): Public support has gone down in Canada for the same reason that public support in the United States has gone down for the war in Iraq. That's because as casualties mount, people become more conscious of the war. It makes front page news.

REYNOLDS: Some polls now show 60 percent of Canadians want their troops brought home, a dramatic shift in less than a year. And the political consensus has also fallen apart. So far Prime Minister Harper's right of center government hasn't just supported the mission; it actually agreed last week to send hundreds of additional troops and tanks in the coming months. Harper has been devoting more and more of his time to Afghanistan.

Prime Minister HARPER: Whatever the opinion polls are on questions like this, Canada is in there for absolutely the right reasons, with our international allies, with the United Nations, the world community. And we will not, and nor would any responsible Canadian prime minister, ever leave this mission until we are successful in achieving its security and its development objectives.

REYNOLDS: Reports in Canadian media indicate that Harper asked Karzai to come to Canada to help shore up support for the mission. Right off the top of his speech, Karzai expressed his condolences for the losses Canadians have suffered in his country.

President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): My heart goes to the families, the friends and the Canadian people at this time of reflection and sorrow for those families.

REYNOLDS: It's difficult to know if Karzai's words will have an impact on the growing political opposition. While Harper is likely to continue supporting the mission, his government has a tenuous grip on power with only a minority of seats in Parliament and no real political allies. If casualties continue to mount, Harper may be forced to at least scale back the deployment, something that he actually opened the door to just after Karzai's speech. There is one final reason why Harper is having so much trouble selling the mission to Canadians. Political scientist Nelson Weisman explains.

Mr. WEISMAN: The other reason there's been a drop in support, I suspect, is because you have - the conservatives are now in power, and ideologically they're much more closely aligned with George Bush and the Republican position.

REYNOLDS: President Bush's popularity continues to drop in Canada and it's considered a truism here that being too close to the White House is political suicide. Military analysts say the Taliban is getting stronger, not weaker. And with an election expected sometime next year, keeping his word about Afghanistan may not be politically expedient. For NPR News, I'm Richard Reynolds in Toronto.

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