Harper tells troops; "Canada's staying in Afghanistan"
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CP) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper spent his second day in turbulent Afghanistan on Monday with a clear message to doubters back home that Canada won't be a pushover. "You can't lead from the bleachers. I want Canada to be a leader," he told about 1,000 Canadian soldiers at the base of the multinational mission led by a Canadian general. Harper's surprise visit to Afghanistan, which began on Sunday, is meant to lend support to troops facing twin problems: a stubborn insurgency that has claimed the lives of 12 Canadians since 2002 and a public back in Canada that has shown wavering support for the mission.

Harper sought to assuage the fears of soldiers who thought such dissent could derail the mission. "There could be some who want to cut and run. But cutting and running is not my way. And it's not the Canadian way," he said in a speech that drew warm applause. "We don't make a commitment and then run away at the first sign of trouble. We don't, and we will not, as long as I'm leading this country." Bravo!
Harper's trip to Afghanistan is his first official foreign visit since he and the Conservatives were elected in January. Other world leaders such as U.S. President George W. Bush have visited the turbulent country, but the length of Harper's visit and his willingness to stay overnight were touted as unprecedented. The prime minister is being accompanied by Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor, a retired general. Harper spent the early part of the day on the base Monday, visiting the troops in their quarters and inspecting the armoured vehicles they use when they venture into hostile territory at the risk of being targeted by suicide bombers and roadside explosives.

"Your work is about more than just defending Canada's interests," he told the troops. "It's also about demonstrating an international leadership role for our country."

Most soldiers said they were touched and pleased he came for such a long visit. "It's a big deal for the boys, to let them know that people back home, especially the government, are thinking of us," said Warrant Officer John MacPherson.

However, some soldiers seemed stunned that Canadians might not support their work in the turbulent country. "That's . . . I'll hold my tongue - but that burns me. Really," said Cpl. Pascal Johanny. "Usually, the Canadian public has always approved of Canada's missions, like Bosnia, Kosovo, always giving their support. Now, we're here, in one of the worst places that needs the most help, and now they don't want to support us? It's kind of odd."

Harper also used his speech to promote the humanitarian side of Canada's mission in the country, including improving women's rights, building a democracy and a better education system. "These are important victories for the people of Afghanistan, and they represent things worth standing up for," he said.

MacPherson, on his 7th tour of duty abroad, echoed these points when asked what people in Canada need to know about why he, and others, went to the country. "I've seen quite a bit, (but) I have never seen a people that are this poor. They have nothing. We're just trying to hopefully give them a better life," he said. "It's going to take a long time."
Posted by: Steve 2006-03-13