CFB VALCARTIER, Que. - On a day of grim news from Afghanistan, Defence Minister Peter MacKay delivered a blunt message to the U.S. and other NATO allies: don't look to Canada for more troops.
That message was delivered to a backdrop of deadly explosions, reports that the U.S. military wants more troops there, and warnings from senior American soldiers that the conflict is spiralling out of control.
It also occurred as Afghanistan's fragile democracy took another step forward, with preliminary election results suggesting a nailbiter of a presidential race between incumbent Hamid Karzai and his main challenger.
MacKay says he hasn't felt any direct pressure - at least not yet - from the U.S. government to extend Canada's combat mission beyond 2011.
But if that request ever comes, MacKay says plenty of other countries should be approached to step up instead of Canada.
"I think there's a continued call to NATO allies for them to contribute more," MacKay told a news conference Tuesday.
"But there are many countries in line before Canada that should be approached before they would come knocking on our door, I would suggest to you."
MacKay's comments come as senior U.S. military officers are going public with their assessment that the conflict is not going well for NATO.
That reality was underscored Tuesday by spectacular explosions in the province where Canadian soldiers are based.
Five car bombs detonated simultaneously in Kandahar City - killing dozens of people, injuring dozens more, and reducing a construction company office to rubble.
This occurred on the same day that preliminary results from Afghanistan's presidential election suggested a close race.
Karzai and his onetime ally Abdullah Abdullah each have roughly 40 per cent of the nationwide vote for president, with 10 per cent of polling stations counted, the Afghan election commission said.
If neither Karzai nor Abdullah gets more than 50 per cent of the vote, the two will face each other in a run-off, likely in early October.
The election commission plans to release more numbers over the coming days, but final certified results of last week's election won't be ready until at least mid-September.
The commission announced that Karzai has 40.6 per cent and Abdullah has 38.7 per cent of the votes in the country's first official returns since millions of Afghans voted for president last Thursday.
But few votes have been counted in key southern provinces, including Kandahar, where Karzai would expect to do well. That suggests his returns could go higher.
MacKay called the contrast - election results emerging on the same day as deadly bombings - symbolic of the Afghan situation.
"We're obviously awaiting the results of the election . . . and we've made tremendous contributions there," he said.
"Yet we hear today, and I would express on behalf of all Canadians our repect and solidarity and our condolences to those that were affected, (about) today's blast in Afghanistan that took the lives of many.
"This is symbolic of the continued challenges that exist on the ground in Afghanistan."
Canada has been involved in Afghanistan since 2001.
Although numerous insurgencies elsewhere in the world have been defeated following lengthy conflicts that dragged on for years or even decades, the government says Canada can't commit to Afghanistan forever.
The Obama administration is expected to push for an extension beyond 2011.
But if the White House intends to do any such diplomatic arm-twisting, MacKay says he hasn't seen it yet: "There hasn't been any direct approach in that regard," he said.
And if that American request ever arrives, officials say Canada already has its answer planned: No.
It's the same response delivered last month when the head of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, declared his wish that Canada remain.
"You saw the response we gave the NATO secretary-general," said one Canadian government official.
"Our response is not going to be different for anybody on Earth."
"Our response was delivered by Parliament."
Parliament has approved a resolution that Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan will end in 2011, although the government says some soldiers and Canadian civilians might stay behind to do logistical or aid work.
Canada's southern neighbours, meanwhile, are assessing what's needed to win the fight in Afghanistan.
U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, has called the Afghan situation "serious and deteriorating."
"Afghanistan is very vulnerable in terms of (the) Taliban and extremists taking over again, and I don't think that threat's going to go away," Mullen said over the weekend.
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is finishing an assessment of what's needed to win the fight there.
Mullen says McChrystal's review won't specifically address force levels.
But military officials have been cited in news reports stating McChrystal may request as many as 20,000 additional troops to regain control over an increasingly difficult security situation.
This has been another record year for NATO deaths in Afghanistan with at least 292 so far.