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Canada's candid PM Harper warns Obama: We'll never defeat Afghan insurgents

March 2, 2009 |  4:44 am

US President Barack Obama and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper meet in Ottawa on February 19, 2009

Remember way back in the early days of the Obama administration when the president went to Canada on his first foreign trip and as soon as Afghanistan came up in the concluding news conference, the well-briefed new U.S. leader pre-empted a key question by saying he had not asked Prime Minister Stephen Harper for more Canadian troops?

Good thing.

Because, as it turns out, Prime Minister Harper thinks victory for the allies in Afghanistan is simply not going to happen. In a fasA US soldier in Afghanistancinating and surprisingly candid interview with CNN's ever-thoughtful Fareed Zakaria on "GPS," here's what the leader of the United States' closest military ally there said:

"In fact, my own judgment, Fareed, is, quite frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency."

Coming just days after Obama ordered 17,000 additional U.S. combat troops into that forever-fighting land as a mere holding action, pending further study and possible additional deployments, that's got to be a stunner to the new White House team.

Americans historically have not taken well to not winning wars. The dreaded Q word (quagmire) came up even during the relatively brief fighting of 2001-02.

But throughout the presidential campaign Obama argued that Afghanistan was the real center of the war on terrorism where he would devote his major efforts. Pending an administration review of overall Afghan strategy/policy, Obama ordered the additional troops last week. With more possible later this year.

Canadians have fought with Americans as part of NATO since Day One of 2001's Taliban-ousting. Unlike some NATO contingents, Canadian troops have been fully-engaged around the clock and have lost 108 soldiers, the highest per capita rate of allied forces. In an unusual nonpartisan agreement among major parties, Canadian leaders decided their combat forces would leave Afghanistan at the end of 2011.

Zakaria asked Harper his response if Obama sought additional Canadian forces or a combat mission extension. (See video below) Here's what Harper replied:

"If President Obama were to ask me that question, I would have a question back for him.  And that question would be: What is your plan to leave Afghanistan to the Afghans, so they can govern it?

Because there are enormous risks there for us and enormous challenges. And I'm not saying we cannot improve things. But if we think -- our experience has taught us, if we think that we are going to govern Afghanistan for the Afghans, or over the long term be responsible for day-to-day security in Afghanistan, and see that country improve, we are mistaken.

And so, if -- I welcome President Obama's renewed commitment to Afghanistan, the fact that they're sending a lot more American troops. We're delighted to have them, especially in Kandahar, where we need the partner.

But over the long haul, if President Obama wants anybody to do more, I would ask very hard questions about what is the strategy for success and for an eventual departure?"

We have a full video and a transcript of the rest of the Zakaria-Harper exchange on Afghanistan on the jump; scroll down or click the "Read more" line below.

-- Andrew Malcolm

Related Post: Afghan president hopes Obama will "settle down," show "better judgment"

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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on CNN's "GPS" with Fareed Zakaria, March 1, 2009:

ZAKARIA: But it sounds like there is very little support in Canada for an extension of Canada's mission, which expires in 2012, am I right?

HARPER:  Yes. It expires at the end of 2011. The issue in Canada, Fareed, I don't think is whether we stay or whether we go. The issue that Canadians ask is, are we being successful?  And...

ZAKARIA:  What's your answer to that right now?

HARPER: Right now, we have made gains. Those gains are not irreversible, so the success has been modest.

ZAKARIA:  So then, why leave?

HARPER: We're not going to The bodies of three more Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan are returned home in Decemberwin this war just by staying. We're not going to -- in fact, my own judgment, Fareed, is, quite frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency. Afghanistan has probably had -- my reading of Afghanistan history, it's probably had an insurgency forever, of some kind.

What has to happen in Afghanistan is, we have to have an Afghan government that is capable of managing that insurgency and improving its own governance.

ZAKARIA: So, we are never going to defeat the insurgency. The best we can do is train Afghan forces that can take it on, and then we withdraw.

HARPER:  Absolutely.  Because I think, you know, a part of the calculation there is the fact that, ultimately, the source of authority in Afghanistan has to be perceived as being indigenous. If it's perceived as being foreign -- and I still think we're welcome there -- but if it's perceived as being foreign, it will always have a significant degree of opposition.

ZAKARIA:  Is it your sense that Karzai's government has legitimacy and should be backed?  What do your people tell you?

HARPER:  There is no doubt that governance in Afghanistan has to improve, and has to improve much more quickly than what we've seen in the first -- how many years is it now -- almost eight years?"

Photo credits: Adrian Wyld / Associated Press via Canadian Press (Obama and Harper in Ottawa); Associated Press (A U.S. soldier in Afghanistan); CBC (The bodies of three more Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan are returned home in December).