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Rice Urges Canada, Other NATO Allies to Persevere in Afghanistan

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Thursday hailed Canada's military role in Afghanistan and said defeating the Taliban-led insurgency there is crucial to international security. Rice met Canada's Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier in advance of a parliamentary debate in Canada next month on the future of that country's Afghan mission. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The Bush administration is heaping praise on Canada for its Afghan effort amid domestic criticism there that Canadian battlefield losses have been disproportionate and that some other NATO members are not sharing the burden.

Canada has about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, most of them in the volatile southern part of the country. More than 70 Canadians have been killed there since Canada joined the NATO mission a year ago.

At press events Thursday, both President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice applauded Canada for its sacrifices in Afghanistan.

Rice, meeting reporters after talks with Foreign Minister Bernier, said Canada's role has been extraordinary and invaluable, and that Afghanistan must not be allowed to become the terrorist safe haven it was before the U.S.-led invasion at the end of 2001.

"We learned the hard way what happened when we allowed a failed state to emerge in Afghanistan under Taliban control, that then allowed al-Qaida to burrow in, to train, to become equipped, to fund-raise, to use the assets of a state like Afghanistan to improve their capabilities as terrorists. And as a result, they were able to use that platform for the attacks of September 11," she said.

Canada is committed to keeping troops in Afghanistan until February of 2009 and the Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said it would like to see the military mission extended beyond that.

However opposition parties are adamant about ending the mission on schedule or even sooner. A parliamentary debate in Ottawa will to be held after an independent study panel on the Afghan mission reports to legislators late next month.

Appearing with Rice, Foreign Minister Bernier made clear the Harper government's inclination is to remain, but said the decision rests with parliament.

"It will be vote in Parliament, in the House [of Commons] for the future of our military mission," he said. "And it's our job as a government, when we'll take our decision, to explain our decision to Canadians, what we're doing there. And I hope that we'll be able to have our mission, our military mission, extended for a couple of months. But we're going to await the recommendations from the panel. And after that, we'll have a position from our government and we'll have a public debate."

At his news conference earlier Thursday, President Bush applauded Britain, Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands for their Afghan contributions, saying they are working side-by-side with U.S. forces to deal the Taliban a blow.

Mr. Bush said his main concern is that countries in the NATO-led international force in Afghanistan will grow tired of their involvement, stressing it will take time for what he called the "democratic experiment" in Afghanistan to work.

Rice said the United States is working with all the NATO allies to make sure responsibilities in Afghanistan are spread more evenly.

U.S. officials, among them Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have recently become more vocal in criticizing restrictions by some NATO members on their combat roles in Afghanistan, or for not supplying helicopters or other key equipment.

The United States has about 26,000 troops in Afghanistan and has the lead combat role. NATO provides most of the remaining 28,000 troops, but British, Canadian, Dutch, Danish and Australian forces are credited by U.S. officials with doing most of the fighting.