US and Canadian defence chiefs discussed a new strategy yesterday for the war in Afghanistan days after Canada's prime minister warned the insurgency could not be defeated through military force. US defense secretary Robert Gates said a strategy review ordered by President Barack Obama was still underway and that he had sought the advice of his Canadian counterpart, Peter MacKay. "I told him the review is a work in progress. We are still soliciting ideas from our allies and friends," Mr Gates told reporters after his meeting with MacKay.
"It's not a pro forma exercise. We are genuinely interested in people's thinking," he said, citing recent discussions with Afghan and Pakistani delegations. The US review, expected to be completed by April, was addressing the size of the "foreign military presence" in the country and how to improve co-operation between international military and civilian efforts, he added. The meeting coincided with more Canadian casualties in the Afghan war and after Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper said Nato forces could not secure a military victory against the Islamist insurgents.
"Quite frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency. Afghanistan has probably had ? my reading of Afghanistan history is ? it's probably had an insurgency forever of some kind," Mr Harper told CNN. "What has to happen in Afghanistan is we have to have an Afghan government that is capable of managing that insurgency," the prime minister said. The remarks met with criticism in some quarters in Canada, but Mr MacKay said on Thursday that Harper's comments were in line with the US administration's view.
He said that both countries believed that military might alone could not succeed and that it needed to be coupled with improved governance in the impoverished country. Mr MacKay also said Ottawa supported Washington's plans for a regional approach to the conflict that would address the role of Pakistan. He said "Pakistan is a country that you absolutely have to include on the way forward and on the plans that will eventually lead to improved status for both countries."
He added that the talks touched on concerns about the situation in Pakistan's restive north-west tribal areas as well as the volatile Swat valley, where hardline Islamists have tried to enforce sharia law. The visit came two days after three Canadian soldiers in southern Afghanistan were killed in a roadside blast, raising the Canadian death toll in the conflict to 111. Mr Gates expressed his condolences over the latest casualties suffered by Canada, which has some 2,750 troops deployed as part of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
Mr MacKay ruled out keeping combat troops in Afghanistan beyond 2011, a deadline approved by parliament. "We can't attempt to build democracy and institutions in Afghanistan and not respect our own," he said, referring to the parliamentary vote. He said Canada would still be involved in the international effort in Afghanistan after 2011 though not in combat. "Canada post-2011 will play a role. We will absolutely be in Afghanistan performing important tasks," he added.
"We will reconfigure what the face of that mission looks like. We will be involved in consultations with our allies. But we will always respect parliament." Mr Obama has ordered the deployment of an additional 17,000 troops to join the 38,000-strong US contingent in Afghanistan, and his strategy review is expected to be completed ahead of a Nato a summit in April. * AFP