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The mission in Afghanistan will serve no purpose unless it is backed up by tangible humanitarian aid and given the full support of NATO, say the leading Liberal leadership candidates.

In a lunch address to the Canadian Club of Toronto on Tuesday, Gerard Kennedy, Bob Rae and Stéphane Dion all called on the Harper Government to readdress the nation's role in Afghanistan and said the other countries of NATO had to match Canada's commitment to the region.

Mr. Kennedy described the turmoil in Afghanistan as coming from three interlinked crises: the economic reliance on opium, a low level of foreign aid, and the battle with the Taliban.

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"Western nations had pledged for alternative economic development and not delivered. We cannot win hearts and minds if we're not filling their stomachs," said Mr. Kennedy.

"We need the commitment of the whole international community. If not, we should leave in an orderly fashion after February 2007 with our heads held high as a country that's provided the only other possibility -- short term security need -- on a par with any other in the world."

All three leadership contenders called for the NATO mandate to be revised, with Mr. Kennedy saying it should align with Canadian principles. "If young men and women are to be at risk, it will be for things that we believe in," he said.

Mr. Rae said diplomacy and development assistance should be given a much greater priority for the nation's troops, and called on other nations to boost their involvement.

"There is not going to be a simple military solution to what is happening in Afghanistan," Mr. Rae said. "I think we should be insisting on sharing the burden with our NATO allies. We just have to be intensely realistic as a country as to what we can achieve."

Quebec-based Stéphane Dion said his support for the mission would remain strong until there was a clear indication the troops were no longer required by the Afghan people.

"There is no way that Canada will be an occupying force. I'm supporting the mission because I'm still convinced that most of the people of Afghanistan want our protection. The very moment I know that is not the case, I will not be there," he said.

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