About PM Harper makes surprise visit to troops in Afghanistan
|March 13th, 2006||#1|
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PM Harper makes surprise visit to troops in Afghanistan info
"Very quickly after assuming office, looking at all of Canada's interests abroad, we determined that the single most important thing we're doing in terms of our commitments, in terms of the risks were taking, in terms of the leadership we're showing, the most important thing is what we're doing in Afghanistan," Harper told reporters on Sunday.
Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor accompanied Harper, who left Ottawa Saturday morning. Gen. Rick Hillier, Canada's top soldier, met the two in Kandahar.
Harper was all smiles as he met a few dozen soldiers shortly after arriving, shaking hands as they introduced themselves.
"It's awesome, especially him personally coming here to see us. That is what we need to see, support more than anything else," said Master Cpl. Ardis White.
"I think it's great. We need the morale booster," added Master Cpl. Guylaine Palmondon.
"These are a great bunch of men and women who are doing a great job. We want to make sure they understand the government and the population is behind them," Harper said.
Canada's commitment to Afghanistan has come under question in recent weeks, with opinion polls showing most Canadians feel uneasy about the nation's role.
Critics have demanded a vote or debate on any extension to the military commitment in Afghanistan, saying Canadians should have the chance to make their voices heard.
Hillier told reporters that Harper's visit was encouraging to the troops, and he responded sharply when asked if the troops in Afghanistan realize many Canadians may not support the mission.
"Every soldier, sailor, man and woman you talk to here is excited about their mission," Hillier said. "They're proud to be here. They believe they're doing something fundamentally good.
They're delighted to represent our country and they're doing the kind of professional job that I know our prime minister will see and the minister will see."
Canada currently has about 2,200 troops in the country, and Harper has pledged unwavering support to them since being sworn in on Feb. 6.
The prime minister recently blasted critics who demanded a vote on the issue in Parliament, saying it's not acceptable to send troops into danger, then question that decision.
When asked about whether he would consider opening the issue up for discussion, Harper said the previous government made the decision to send troops to Afghanistan, and he has no intention of reneging on that commitment.
"The debate over deployment is over," Harper said. "There will be fence posts in the future where we make future decisions about deployment, but as long as we have troops, police, diplomats, development officials on the ground, we're going to support them."
Harper also played down opinion polls that suggest Canadians don't believe in the mission.
"I think you can have an opinion poll that shows anything," Harper said. "I think Canadians are always behind our troops wherever they go, and I think the more they understand about the mission and all the things we're doing here … the more support they'll have for the work we're doing here."
"This is the danger that or men and women on the ground live with every day, so I think that if we're going to send them into harm's way, we should be prepared to go there and support them in what they do.
"Canada is not an island, we live in a dangerous world, and we have to show leadership in that world and that's what we're doing and that's what I'm trying to do by going to support our men and women."
In February, reporters spotted members of the Prime Minister's Office at the base. Reports suggested the officials were doing advance work for a possible visit by the prime minister.
Harper, who told reporters he had no plans to visit Afghanistan, flatly denied the reports.
"Obviously in the future if we decide to travel somewhere we'll let you know," he said.
On Sunday he said he made the decision some time ago, but the details weren't finalized until one week ago.
The secret trip
Only a small number of government staff and journalists were told about the trip. Officials instructed passengers to pack for five to six days -- and to say nothing.
The entourage flew in a government Airbus from Ottawa to Zagreb, Croatia for refueling, and then on to Islamabad, Pakistan.
From there, people transferred to a military transport aircraft for the one-hour flight from Pakistan to Kandahar.
Upon arrival, troops from the secretive, elite JTF 2 unit provided security for the prime minister.
While at the main camp, Harper gets to stay in comparative luxury -- a concrete floor, indoor plumbing and a function shower.
Soldiers sleep in tents, use portable toilets and have to walk to a central building for running water.
However, if a rocket attack happens, Harper and other visitors will have to don the helmets and flak jackets that are near their beds and be prepared to move into a concrete bunker.
Robert Fife, CTV's Ottawa bureau chief, told CTV Newsnet that Harper will be visiting the soldiers' tents in the morning, have breakfast with them, and go for a run in a LAV III armoured personnel carrier.
Harper will be making what's billed as a major speech on Canada's role in Afghanistan before about 1,000 troops on Monday, he said.
Many troops are out in the countryside on two major patrols right now, Fife said.