Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a surprise stop in Afghanistan to mark the end of the country’s decade-long military mission in the country, and pay tribute to fallen soldiers.
Harper made his fourth trip to the Asian country less than a month after his third consecutive election victory, visiting troops and laying a wreath at a memorial to commemorate Canadians who died during the conflict. Harper ended his 11-hour visit with a speech at the Kandahar military base where he noted Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan, to end in July, has gone as long as Canadian fighting in both World Wars combined.
“As the combat mission here in Kandahar draws to a close, and Canadian boots no longer tread this dusty ground, always remember that we Canadians do not dream of empire, we do not covet what other nations possess and we do not make war to advance selfish or cynical ends,” Harper told about 1,000 troops in front of a giant red maple leaf Canadian flag held up by two light armored vehicles.
Harper’s Canadian Forces C-17 transport plane landed at the Kandahar Air Field at about 10 a.m. Afghanistan time amid tight security after taking off from Qatar for what was publicly scheduled as a flight to Ottawa from Athens. The trip’s details were kept secret until his departure, because of security concerns. Harper had been in France for the summit of leaders from the Group of Eight, and in Athens for talks with Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou before traveling to Qatar to join Defense Minister Peter MacKay for the flight to Kandahar.
Harper committed during 2008 elections to withdraw Canada’s troops amid falling support for the military campaign as casualties mounted, pledging to refocus the mission toward development and training of Afghan forces. Canada, which now has 3,000 soldiers in the country, has said it plans to leave as many as 950 troops in Afghanistan for training.
Canada’s withdrawal is part of a broader plan by Western allies to hand over security to Afghan forces in all the country’s provinces by 2014, a target date set by NATO leaders at a summit meeting in Lisbon last November. By July, Afghanistan’s national army will take over security in three provinces and four cities, President Hamid Karzai said in March.
The U.S. has about 97,000 soldiers in the country after adding 30,000 to its force last year. President Barack Obama’s administration is deciding how many troops it will leave when a withdrawal program begins in July.
The Canadian leader said he’s confident Afghan forces will be ready to take control of the country’s security.
“We remain optimistic and you know we’ll put our shoulder to the wheel and accomplish this,” Harper told reporters at a press conference following his speech. “Foreign soldiers are not the final solution to this particular conflict.”
Harper told reporters the mission already is a success because “Afghanistan is no longer a threat to the world.” The Taliban, which gave shelter to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda movement, were ousted from power by the U.S.-led coalition that invaded Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Bin Laden was killed May 2 by U.S. Navy SEAL commandos in Pakistan.
One hundred and fifty-six Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2002, the greatest number of casualties for the country since the Korean War. The wreath-laying ceremony at the base was also attended by professional hockey player Jarome Iginla, captain of the Calgary Flames, and Marie-Philip Poulin and Jayna Hefford of Canada’s 2010 gold medal-winning women’s hockey team.
Upon arriving in Afghanistan, Harper immediately left on a Chinook helicopter to visit a base of about 500 soldiers near Sperwan Ghar, a village in the Panjwai district of southern Kandahar province about 41 kilometers (25 miles) from the airfield. With temperatures touching 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), Harper drove up to the top of a look-out hill at the outpost and entered a surveillance bunker with MacKay. He also served lunch at a mess hall and took pictures with soldiers.
Harper, wearing a camouflaged protective vest and khaki pants, then flew to a former al-Qaeda training camp that has been turned into a wheat and barley field, where he advised one farmer to get the crop to market soon because prices were good.
Soon after taking power in February 2006, Harper became a staunch defender of the mission that had been put into place by the previous Liberal government. Harper visited Afghanistan just five weeks after becoming prime minister, and two months later, pushed a vote through Parliament to extend the mission for an additional two years.
As casualties mounted, Harper’s ability to sustain public support for a combat mission weakened and opposition parties began to call for troops to be brought home, leaving his Conservative government, which at the time held a minority of seats in Parliament, increasingly isolated on the issue.
The end of the combat mission will help Canada reduce spending as the country seeks to return its budget to balance by the fiscal year that begins April 2014.