As the Harper government considers a request to send 750 military trainers to Afghanistan when Canada's combat mission ends next July, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says the Conservatives are scrambling in advance of a NATO meeting in Lisbon this month.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Sunday the government is looking at the possibility of keeping a significant number of soldiers " behind the wire" in the war-torn country to help train the Afghan army and local police.
Sources have confirmed the NATO request, which would include 200 support staff, to The Globe and Mail. If approved, the Canadian training mission would essentially fill all the remaining shortfall of Afghanistan trainers identified by the alliance.
"They're scrambling because they're under pressure from their allies," Mr. Ignatieff told reporters on Monday.
Canadian officials said there will be no change in the government's commitment to withdraw all the current combat force from Kandahar next year. But the big training mission - probably in Kabul - would fill a need identified by NATO and avert the political message that Canada is leaving Afghanistan entirely.
On Friday, "out of the blue," Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae received a phone call about the matter from Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, Mr. Ignatieff said.
"A phone call. It's the first [time]we know that they've got some idea about trainers," he said. "We don't know what they're talking about. We don't know how many trainers. This isn't the kind of thing you want to do some secret deal with the Liberals about. This is a conversation that has to be had with Canadians. How many trainers? For how long? Who else is training? What are your training targets? What kind of mission is this?"
If there is going to be a Canadian military presence on the ground after 2011 - when Canadian troops are scheduled to pull out - the government owes Canadians an explanation, Mr. Ignatieff said.
"Now, finally, two weeks before a big meeting, under pressure from their allies, they're scrambling," he said.
The Conservatives are scrambling to explain Canada's failed bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, Mr. Ignatieff said, and they are scrambling to get another military supply base now that they've been thrown out of the United Arab Emirates where they had, until last week, operated the secret Camp Mirage.
"And now they're scrambling to reply to what their allies have been asking them for eight months which is: 'Where is Canada after 2011?' "