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Fighting terrorists in Afghanistan is better than waiting until they show up in Vancouver, Montreal or Ottawa, Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor told the Commons on Monday.

"Canada is in Afghanistan because it is in our national interest," he said. "Our security begins very far from our borders."

MPs debated Canada's role in Afghanistan amid growing casualty lists, blood-curdling threats from terrorists and polls which suggest Canadians are divided on the mission.

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The "take-note" debate was more of a discussion than an actual debate, with no party opposed to the deployment and no vote held.

Liberal Leader Bill Graham, who led a similar House debate on the topic last November, said he saw it as "an opportunity for the Canadian people to better understand this mission."

A small group of peace protesters on Parliament Hill Monday demanded an immediate withdrawal from the southwest Asian country. One called the Commons debate "an absolute sham."

NDP Leader Jack Layton, who admits Canada is committed to Afghanistan until next February at least, said the debate posed key questions:

-What is Canada's role?

-How long will it take?

-How is victory to be defined?

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The new Conservative government had tried to fend off calls for a debate, saying it wasn't needed and would only serve to hurt morale among the troops.

But Prime Minister Stephen Harper reversed himself abruptly last week and scheduled the debate.

Liberal Defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh said he thinks that happened because recent polls have shown faltering support for the mission, especially as it has drifted far from peacekeeping and into open warfare.

He commended Mr. Harper for holding the debate.

Mr. Layton said Canadians incorrectly thought the mission was one of traditional peacekeeping and have been taken aback by recent gun battles between Canadians and Taliban forces.

Terror attacks against civilians as well as foreign and Afghani troops are now routine. Afghani authorities say domestic insurgents have been reinforced from outside the country, with Iraqi-style suicide attacks growing in numbers.

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A survey published by Decima Research last weekend suggested an even split among respondents when asked if Canadian troops should be in Afghanistan.

Neither Mr. Harper nor Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe took part in the debate. A spokesman for Mr. Harper said the Prime Minister made his support for the mission clear while visiting Afghanistan last month.

"You would really think that on something of this magnitude and importance that the Prime Minister would be here," Mr. Layton said.

Peace activists, who want Canada out, have denounced the operation as nothing more than a branch of U.S. President George W. Bush's war on terror.

However, non-governmental groups are more supportive, recognizing that aid workers need protection in a country that is slumping into chaos.

Canada has been deeply involved in Afghanistan since February 2002, when a battle group went in to co-operate with American and other coalition forces in rooting out Taliban holdouts. In August 2003, Canadian troops moved into Kabul as part of an international stability force.

Last fall, Canadians set up shop in the troubled southern city of Kandahar, where they have since found themselves attacked by suicide bombers and roadside booby traps and fighting rural skirmishes with militants holdouts.

During the various missions, 11 Canadian soldiers and a diplomat have been killed.

Last weekend, Afghani insurgents threatened more mayhem.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, insurgent spokesman Qari Yuosaf Ahmedi said the Taliban are convinced the resolve of the Canadian people is weak and that public support will sag as suicide attacks and roadside blasts increase.

"We think that when we kill enough Canadians they will quit war and return home," he said.

Monday's Commons debate was a sign of that weakness, he added.

Claude Bachand of the Bloc Québécois scoffed at that comment.

"I think this is a sign of the health of our democracy as opposed to a dictatorship with the Taliban," Mr. Bachand said.

Canada is ostensibly in Afghanistan as part of a NATO operation, although in practical terms the mission is under an American umbrella. Washington provides much of the clout - including helicopters and other key support - for the entire deployment.

Afghanistan remains a dysfunctional country. Hamid Karzai was elected president in the fall of 2004 in a vote made possible only by the presence of thousands of foreign soldiers.

Mr. Karzai's power barely reaches the Kabul city limits and even within he is protected by foreign bayonets. The outlying regions are run by warlords or have descended into outright anarchy benefiting only the bandits and opium farmers.

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