Defence Minister Peter MacKay talks with the media aboard the prime minister's flight to Bucharest, Romania to attend the NATO summit, Tuesday, April 1, 2008. (Tom Hanson / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives in Bucharest, Romania to attend the NATO summit, Tuesday, April 1, 2008. (Tom Hanson / THE CANADIAN PRESS)



Canada's top representatives at a key NATO meeting are downplaying expectations for the gathering, suggesting Canadians shouldn't expect an announcement of extra troops to help out in Afghanistan -- yet.

On the plane heading to Bucharest, Romania, Defence Minister Peter MacKay told reporters that "anything is possible," but there's lots of time to secure the troops.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said Canada will only continue its military role in the country if other NATO countries cough up extra troops and equipment to help out in the south. A panel led by John Manley said 1,000 troops should be the key to continuing Canada's commitment.

Many observers had expected France to use this meeting to announce it would answer the call, but that may be in question.

"I think it's fair to say the signal coming from Defence Minister Peter MacKay is if we don't have what we require as set out in the Manley report this week here at NATO we have until February 2009 to get those troops," CTV's Graham Richardson told Canada AM after arriving in Bucharest.

MacKay pointed out that troop numbers have gone up significantly since the last NATO summit, including increased numbers in the volatile southern region, where Canada is doing much of the heavy lifting.

But Richardson said there may be some behind the scenes politicking going on.

"What's unclear in this from Mr. MacKay's comments -- was he really lowering expectations for a real reason, or in a couple of days when the decision is made are they going to be able to say that despite our concerns heading in, we got what we needed, we got our 1,000 troops."

Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier has taken a similar tone, saying this week's meeting may not produce the partner Canada needs to extend the mission.

Bernier also said there is plenty of time to secure the extra troop commitments ahead of the 2009 deadline.

Critics, however, suggest Bernier is changing his tune after receiving Commons support for the extension, and that Canada's troops need an exit strategy.

"The opposition is already saying back in Canada we need some hard answers now, that we can't continue to wait for this," Richardson said.

In addition to Bernier and MacKay, Harper will also be at the meeting, taking part in a panel that will include Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Richardson said Canadian officials see Harper's presence on the panel as proof Canada's profile is rising in NATO and is responsible for making Afghanistan a priority within the group.

Yeah, well Harper and McKay better get their asses in gear.