NATO agrees its time for the role of foreign troops in Afghanistan to shift away from one of combat to one of support, says a spokesperson for the international organization.
James Appathurai discussed the NATO position after Liberal Leader Stephane Dion and deputy leader Michael Ignatieff visited the war-torn nation and called for Canada to stay on beyond February 2009 when the mission is scheduled to end, but in a non-combat role.
"I think actually we all agree on the end state -- NATO and I think probably the political parties here too -- and that's transition," Appathurai, a Canadian, told CTV's Canada AM on Monday.
"We want to move to a phase where the Afghans are in the lead and we provide support, training, close air support, emergency support but let them do the frontline fighting. It's a question of when."
Appathurai, who recently returned from a visit to the Panjwaii region of Afghanistan, said that transition -- which many see as no more than a distant and unlikely possibility -- may actually not be that far off.
"We have two Afghan battalions now, with Canadian troops, and taking an increasingly leading role. But the key is, from my perspective but also from NATO's perspective, we haven't reached a tipping point. We're not at the phase where we can take that step."
Canada has taken a lead role in the volatile south of Afghanistan, facing the Taliban head on and taking casualties, with 76 soldiers and one diplomat now killed since 2002 -- and several more injured over the weekend.
That has many Canadians questioning why the frontline fighting isn't being shared more evenly among the NATO countries serving in Afghanistan.
But Appathurai said other countries are helping shoulder the burden.
"I think the first thing to say is we're not alone. There are eleven countries directly involved in the combat all the time. Two Dutch were just killed yesterday," he pointed out.
"And eight countries in the last three or four months have stepped up their contribution to the combat role. The Poles just announced a couple of days ago, 400 new troops, eight new helicopters. The Americans are considering 3,000 more soldiers for the south."
The problem, he said, is that Canadian journalists travel to Kandahar where Canadians are taking a leading role, and most of the stories that emerge cover the risks Canadian soldiers are taking in that region.
A Liberal news release issued Saturday said Dion and Ignatieff met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and told him that while the party believes Canada's combat mission should end in 2009, the party supports diplomatic and development efforts.
"We are convinced after the day we've had that we will have plenty of things to do that will involve, yes, to take risks, but anywhere we will go whether Darfur or Haiti, there are always risks," Dion told reporters in Kabul.
"We are not afraid of the risks. But we want to sure that we have a balanced mission after 2009 that will be optimally helpful for the people of Afghanistan."
Karzai's reaction to the statement isn't known yet, but reports indicate he thanked Canada for its service in his country to date.
Appathurai said the proposal put forward by Ignatieff and Dion is not unrealistic. In fact, there are already indications that it is on the way, he said.
"It's already happening. In Panjwaii it's happening. We saw a major operation in a town people might have seen in Helmand where the Taliban ... was actually in charge until a couple of months ago. The Afghans led the mission, we came in behind, we kicked them out."
The ultimate goal, he said, is for the Afghan National Army to be handling security in the country and for other nations to support those efforts.
He also said it is critical, both to NATO and the United Nations that the mission in Afghanistan results in a successful outcome. High level UN officials have said that if NATO pulls out, they will also leave because they won't have the necessary security.
"I think to the whole international community, Afghanistan is critical. If we fail in Afghanistan, it means that the UN fails, this is a UN mission, that NATO is doing basically on contract," Appathurai said.
Under that scenario, Afghanistan could easily return to a Taliban-run country, he warned.
"Afghanistan will again be the grand central station of terrorism. There will be terrorists from all over the world, like there were in 2001, training and leaving again to go back to their countries to be more extreme. We will all suffer."