Empresas y finanzas

General says Taliban sees Canada as vulnerable

By Randall Palmer

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Taliban may have mounted suicideattacks on Canadian troops this week expressly to dissuadeParliament from extending the Canadian mission in Afghanistan,Canada's outspoken top soldier said on Friday.

Chief of the defence staff Gen. Rick Hillier also said itwas important for the Canadian Forces to be given a clearmandate for its future role in Afghanistan as soon as possible.

"We are, in the eyes of the Taliban, in a window of extremevulnerability. The longer we go without that clarity, with theissue in doubt, the more the Taliban will target us as aperceived weak link," Hillier said in a speech.

He said he could not exclude the idea that Taliban strikesthis past week were designed to frighten Canada out ofprolonging its 2,500-strong mission beyond the current expirydate of February 2009.

"Certainly there's a perception out there that the Talibanwill try to take advantage of the debate back here and will tryto prevent a cohesive mission," he said.

All three opposition parties had opposed an extension of acombat mission in the violent southern part of the country, butthe minority Conservative government has now reached a dealwith the main opposition Liberal Party to set a fixed end dateof July 2011.

However, Parliament will not vote on that compromise untilnext month. It is theoretically possible that the governmentcould fall in the meantime over the federal budget it willintroduce on February 26.

With little Liberal appetite for triggering an election,that scenario looks increasingly unlikely but if the governmentwere to fall, this would prevent parliamentary approval of theAfghan extension and it would then become an election issue.

Liberal leader Stephane Dion made clear on Friday that hedid not want to topple the government over whatever smalldifferences he might have with Prime Minister Stephen Harper onthe Afghan motion.

"I would prefer not to have Afghanistan as a trigger for anelection," he told reporters in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Harper wants to be able to present a final decision onCanada's role in Afghanistan to NATO's April 2-4 summit inBucharest.

Canada is making any extension conditional on NATO securinga battle group of about 1,000 troops to work alongsideCanadians in Kandahar.

That appears likely to be secured, according to the head ofNATO's military committee, Canadian Gen. Ray Henault.

"I can tell you here today that I am confident that NATOnations will come to the assistance of Canada, will source theadditional personnel requirements that Canada has called for inthe south," Henault said in a separate speech to the Conferenceof Defence Associations.

A further Canadian condition that its troops get helicopterand unmanned aerial support by next February also appearedlikely to be met.

"Within days, I think you'll hear about it," Hillier toldreporters.

The helicopters at least will be on a temporary basis.Hillier voiced a preference for Boeing Chinooks, since theywould mesh with longer-term government plans to take permanentdelivery of 16 Chinooks.

Poland also announced this month it would make twohelicopters available to Canadian troops in Kandahar.

(Editing by Peter Galloway)