Top NATO generals meet in Canada to map Afghanistan strategy

By: CHARMAINE NORONHA - Associated Press

TORONTO -- NATO's top generals debated strategies Thursday to put down the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, amid growing strain within the alliance over the protracted efforts to stabilize the violence-wracked country.

Gen. Ray Henault, chairman of the NATO Military Committee, met with 25 other NATO generals including Canadian Chief of Defense Staff Gen. Rick Hillier in Ottawa, at the opening a three-day day session.

Insurgent violence in Afghanistan is at its highest level since U.S. forces invaded the country in 2001 to oust the hard-line Islamic Taliban rulers, who harbored al-Qaida leaders blamed for planning the Sept. 11 attacks.

The focus of the violence has been in the southern and eastern provinces, but the insurgents increasingly use Iraq-style tactics, such as roadside bombs, suicide attacks and kidnapping to hit foreign and Afghan targets around the country.

The generals discussed long-term strategies in Afghanistan but provided no specifics about their talks, which follows statements by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper that Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan will not be extended beyond 2009 without a national consensus.

Henault said the alliance has not received formal notice from Canada that it intends to end its combat role.

"We don't know how long the mission will last. We are focused on staying the course and will go as long as possible to fulfill what we signed up for," Henault said at a news conference. "A lot of things happen in 18 months. We're certainly hopeful Canada will find a way to continue to operate in Afghanistan."

Seventy Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have lost their lives in Afghanistan since 2002. Canada has about 2,300 soldiers in the country, mainly operating in Kandahar province, the former Taliban stronghold.

Canada has pointed out that Canadian soldiers, along with those from the United States and Britain, are the only NATO troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan's violent south.

Other NATO countries, such as Germany, France and Italy, restrict their forces to relatively peaceful areas in the north. Both Britain and Germany have more troops in Afghanistan than Canada.

The number of NATO troops has doubled over the past year, but that was largely because several thousand U.S. forces already in Afghanistan were transferred to NATO command.