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question period

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Nov. 15, 2010.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Michael Ignatieff and his Liberals are supporting an extension to the Afghan mission they know nothing about.

In the Commons Monday, just days after they indicated their support for a training mission, they were up on their feet demanding details about its make-up. In addition, they accused the government of "skating frantically" to avoid questions Canadians want answered.

"How many trainers? Where are they going to be? Are they going to be out of combat? How much is it going to cost? Why is it impossible for this government to give simple answers to clear questions that Canadians need to have answers to before they can approve any mission by this government," Michael Ignatieff demanded.

He was not alone. The NDP and the Bloc Quebecois were also asking for more answers, wondering, too, how the Prime Minister could go back on his word that no troops would stay in Afghanistan past 2011.

Clearly frustrated, Mr. Ignatieff stood up a couple of times during the 45-minute session. This is rare, indicating the importance of the issue. Usually the leader asks three questions at the beginning of Question Period and leaves the rest to his caucus members.

His foreign affairs critic Bob Rae was also up, peppering the government with similar queries about the mission. The government refused to provide any details - even as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Peter MacKay prepare for a crucial NATO meeting in Portugal.

"Canadians are waiting for a clear, detailed position from the government. Citizens have the right to know what the government intends to do clearly with respect to our engagement in 2011," Mr. Ignatieff said.

At one point the Opposition Leader called the government's response "genuinely absurd" that no information is forthcoming on the eve of the Lisbon summit, where Mr. Harper is expected to talk about his plan.

The Prime Minister was not in the Commons, having returned late Sunday from nearly a week away in Asia attending the G20 and APEC summits. Instead, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon took the questions - sticking to a short script, repeating that details will be provided once they are determined.

"We've been repeatedly clear on this particular issue," Mr. Cannon said. "In accordance with the parliamentary motion that was adopted here in the month of March 2008, Canada's combat mission will end in 2011, and as we transition out of the combat mission we will continue to provide aid and focus on development in Afghanistan. ... A non-combat training role will ensure that the progress made by Canadian Forces to date continues."

The government does not believe it needs to bring the issue to a vote in the Commons. Mr. Cannon argued that troops were sent to help the earthquake victims in Haiti last January and no vote was needed to deploy them.

The issue of an extension to the mission in Afghanistan dominated Question Period, the first since the House broke this month for a week-long Remembrance Day break. Despite vitriol and concern over the fact the government has given them no details about the mission, there is no indication the Liberals are prepared to change their minds about keeping troops in the country past the July 2011 deadline.