Canada PM: Troops home from Afghanistan in 2011

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers his first campaign speech of the 2008 federal election in Quebec City, on Sunday Sept 7, 2008. Harper vowed Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2008 to pull troops from Afghanistan in 2011, saying for the first time that Canadian forces will leave that country. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press,Tom Hanson)

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TORONTO (AP) — Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised for the first time Wednesday that Canada's troops in Afghanistan will be withdrawn in 2011, as his minority government looks to win support in national elections next month.

Harper, who has been a steadfast ally of President Bush in the post-Sept. 11 fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, said Canadians do not have the appetite to keep their soldiers in Afghanistan beyond 10 years.

Harper's pledge goes beyond an agreement Parliament passed in March stipulating only that Canada remove troops in 2011 from Afghanistan's southern province of Kandahar, the former Taliban stronghold that has become the epicenter of fighting.

His vow to leave comes as the Canadian death toll in the conflict approaches 100. Canada has lost 97 soldiers and one diplomat in Afghanistan, and the mission — largely unpopular domestically — was expected to be an issue in the campaign.

Harper's remarks appeared designed to keep that from happening.

"You have to put an end date on these things," Harper said during a rare breakfast meeting with journalists while making a campaign stop in Toronto. "We intend to end it."

The body of the latest Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan was brought home Wednesday. Hundreds lined overpasses and waved maple leaf flags as a police motorcade passed along what is known as the "Highway of Heroes."

The stretch of Highway 401 connects a military base in Trenton, Ontario, and a morgue in Toronto. The tribute is repeated every time a fallen soldier returns to Canada.

The Taliban has warned that it plans to step up attacks during Canada's election campaign. Harper triggered an early election Sunday by dissolving Parliament in a bid to bolster his party's grip on power in an Oct. 14 vote.

Harper says he expects the vote to produce another minority government but recent polls indicate the Conservatives could win the majority they need to rule without help from opposition parties.

Harper said Wednesday it is not a realistic goal to eradicate the insurgency in Afghanistan by 2011. But he said Canada would continue development assistance for Afghanistan and a small number of troops would likely stay behind to offer technical support to coalition countries that remain.

He said the Afghan mission has been the hardest part of his job as prime minister, and that he has called the family of every Canadian soldier who has died during his term.

Canada has 2,500 soldiers in Kandahar province. It first sent troops to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. and increased the deployment after declining a U.S. request to dispatch troops to Iraq.

Canada assumed responsibility for Kandahar in 2005. Harper said Canada will has done its part after serving in Afghanistan's most dangerous province.

"A sovereign government, at some point, has to be primarily responsible for the day-to-day security of the country," Harper said.

Maj. Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, a retired Canadian commander formerly in charge of a U.N. force in the Balkans, criticized Harper for announcing a deadline during an election campaign.

MacKenzie said that should only be told to allies in the highest of confidence.

"I don't like deadlines," MacKenzie said. "I don't like announcing deadlines to an enemy force that now says to themselves, 'Well, we're getting rid of the Canadians' so let's turn our strategic attack on some other country.'"


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