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PM's Afghan vote puts opposition parties on the spot

[PoliticsWatch Updated 5:30 p.m. May 16, 2006]

OTTAWA  — To support, or not to support: that is the question for the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc.  

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to hold a vote Wednesday evening to extend Canada's mission to Afghanistan to 2009 has put the opposition parties on the spot as both the Liberals and the NDP caucuses will meet on Tuesday evening to strategize. 

After months of hearing from the opposition parties that a vote was needed to extend the mission, the Conservative government decided late Monday to table a motion to extend the mission beyond February 2007 when it is scheduled to end. 

The motion reads as follows: "That this House support the government's two-year extension of Canada's diplomatic, development, civilian police and military personnel in Afghanistan and the provision of funding and equipment for this extension."

During question period, NDP Leader Jack Layton complained to Harper about the short notice on the vote. 

"Does he believe that providing 36 hours of notice for a debate on a two year commitment of our troops is the proper way to make foreign policy?" Layton said. 

Harper response was a hint of what this vote is about -- forcing the opposition parties to take a position. 

"Members of the House and the parties of the House have had five years to decide what their position is on this mission," Harper said. "We want to be sure that our troops have the support of this Parliament going forward."

Harper said Canada was in Afghanistan to provide international leadership and to help the Afghan people. 

"These are important things for which Canada should stand," Harper said to the cheers of his MPs. 

So far 15 Canadian soldiers and a government official have been killed in Afghanistan. 

Most of the fatalities have occurred this year as Canada has taken on a larger role in Kandahar. 

Critics say Canada's new role in tracking down Taliban insurgents is a more offensive role than the traditional peacekeeping role and that most Canadians are not aware of it. 

Liberal MP Joe Volpe, who is one of 11 Liberals running to lead the party, has been dubbed by the media as the least supportive of Canada's new role in Afghanistan. 

When asked after question period if he was opposed to the mission to Afghanistan, Volpe said he fully supported Canadian troops but was not about to give the prime minister "a blank cheque" to alter Canada's role in Afghanistan.

"(The Liberal) government said we're going to be involved in Afghanistan in a peacekeeping capacity and laid out the conditions for it. That's what I'm in favour of." 

Volpe said the government should define the objectives of the mission and the resources.  

Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh said the Liberal caucus will meet Tuesday evening to discuss the mission and will continue the debate at Wednesday's weekly caucus meeting. 

Dosanjh said Interim Liberal Leader Bill Graham and not leadership candidates will speak for the caucus once a decision has been made to support or not to support the two-year commitment. 

He would not say if he believed the Tories were trying to exploit possible divisions within the Liberal caucus on the Afghan mission. 

The Conservatives need the support of just one of the three opposition parties to get the motion passed in the House.  

MPs will debate for six hours on Wednesday. The vote is expected at 9:15 ET. 

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