OTTAWA -- Canadian soldiers cannot avoid combat if they are to remain in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, the chief of defence staff said Friday.
Gen. Rick Hillier ruled out any possibility that troops could remain in the volatile region and perform strictly humanitarian and reconstruction duties.
"Certainly if you're in Kandahar you're going to be in combat operations,'' Hillier told reporters after delivering a speech at an Arctic conference.
"If you're there, you're going to be in the middle of a firefight some way or another.''
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has endorsed the recommendations a blue-ribbon panel that looked into Canada's options in Afghanistan.
It recommended Canadians continue in a combat role beyond their scheduled pullout next February if other NATO countries pony up 1,000 reinforcements and the military can acquire combat helicopters and unmanned surveillance aircraft.
The Opposition Liberals have rejected the findings of the panel, headed by former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley. They have said they would leave Canadian troops in Kandahar only as long as they were not involved in combat.
But Hillier said that's impossible. The Afghan army has made great progress but it is not capable of supporting its own counter-insurgency operations, he said.
"One of the (Afghan) battalions is very good; the other one is sort of relatively good and the other one is just getting into a training cycle,'' he said.
"The progress has been phenomenal but it's going to take a while.''
Other NATO commanders recognize the need for more troops to fight the insurgency in southern Afghanistan, he said, but the challenge lies in persuading their political masters to provide them.
He said he's been saying for years that the overall mission needs better co-ordination and support. He said there are sufficient troops in the rest of the country "to do the job'' and perhaps even enough to transfer some to Kandahar.
"That's where the need is right now and the need is not in the north or the west or the northeast. The need is in the south or the east.''
The Manley report will act as a blueprint for all of NATO in Afghanistan, he said, adding the relationship between him and Harper is "solid and good.''
"The political leaders in those countries are going to have to make decisions to set NATO up for success for this mission,'' he said. "Canada is simply the leading edge of the spear.''
Hillier said he can accept whatever decision the federal government ultimately makes as long as it honours the sacrifices made by the Canadians killed in Afghanistan.