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U.S. calls on Canada to extend Afghan mission on eve of G8 foreign ministers

GATINEAU, Que. - Ending a long day of speculations over the future of Canada's involvement in Afghanistan, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said the decision to end the military mission next year has been made "perfectly clear" to the United States.

GATINEAU, Que. - Ending a long day of speculations over the future of Canada's involvement in Afghanistan, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said the decision to end the military mission next year has been made "perfectly clear" to the United States.

His comments, during a hastily-called news conference late Monday evening, came shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked Canada to extend its military mission in the war-torn country.

Clinton made the request in a televised interview on the eve of the Canadian-hosted G8 foreign ministers meeting near Ottawa.

But Cannon reiterated the government's position that it will withdraw all of its 2,800 troops from the southern province of Kandahar by July 2011, as Parliament has decreed.

"Let me be clear once again. Our military mission will end in 2011, " Cannon told reporters.

He said the government is looking at non-military roles past that deadline.

Speculation has been rife about what Canada would do in Afghanistan after 2011. The government has said recently that all military options are off the table, including combat, further training of Afghan forces and maintaining a provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar.

The Opposition and analysts have called for a public discussion on what Canada could do in Afghanistan after 2011. Training the Afghan National Army is one possibility because the NATO-led mission has a shortage of such military instructors.

Moreover, training enough Afghan soldiers and police officers to competently protect their people is key to eventually bringing home all Western troops from Afghanistan.

Clinton said the post-2011 mission could be different from the combat role Canada is currently waging in Kandahar Province, the spiritual heartland of the Taliban.

"There's all kinds of things that are possible. The military could slip more into a training role than into a combat role," she said.

Michael Ignatieff quickly dismissed Clinton's request, saying any renewal of Canada's mission in Afghanistan "is out of the question."

Clinton's request came one day after President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan and chided President Hamid Karzai over the long-standing concerns of corruption in his fragile, Western-backed government.

One of Canada's NATO allies, Norway, also piled on Monday, telling The Canadian Press that arbitrary withdrawal dates don't reflect the reality on the ground in Afghanistan.

"We have great sympathy with the losses Canada has taken and the impression that has made on the people of Canada," Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store said in an interview.

"We have gone in with NATO and we will go out with NATO in accordance with agreement with the Afghan authorities. We have not fixed a date. Our troops will not stay there one day longer than necessary but fixing a date is not something we will do."

Store said no one can put a date on when Afghanistan will be able to govern itself or protect its people from terrorists and insurgents.

"It is part of Norway's deep identity that NATO is our guarantee for security. When we are there on a NATO mission, let's make the best out of it, and let's stick with that mission."

Jolted by Monday's deadly Moscow subway attacks, G8 foreign ministers gathering near Ottawa to discuss global security, quickly cast a suspicious eye to terror haven on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Attending the Canadian-hosted Arctic meeting ahead of the G8, an ashen-faced Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that he could not rule out that the Moscow attacks were planned from abroad, including the safe haven on Pakistan's western frontier abutting Afghanistan.

He said Russians are all too familiar with the "so-called no-man's land on the border" between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"Terrorist attacks, not only in Afghanistan ... are plotted in that area," Lavrov told reporters outside a picturesque Meech Lake retreat in the Gatineau, Que. countryside.

Though many Canadians have no appetite for the further military involvement after suffering more than 140 military deaths, Clinton's comments will be sure to spark debate in the House of Commons, as well as angst within the Conservative government.

Cannon was expected to address the issue at a hastily-called press conference late Monday evening.

Though global security was already a key feature of the G8 foreign ministers agenda, Clinton's remarks and the Moscow suicide bombings clearly focused the nature of Tuesday's talks.

Ahead of their meeting, the G8 foreign ministers condemned the terror attacks on the Moscow subway system as "cowardly."

Cannon, who is chairing the meeting, issued a statement on behalf of the ministers that "strongly condemned the cowardly terrorist attacks."

"Ministers expressed their deepest sympathy to all who have been injured or bereaved by these attacks, and called for the prosecution of all those responsible," the statement said. "They vowed that they would continue to collaborate to thwart and constrain terrorists, and to work for a world that is safe for all, based on the principles of democracy, and respect for the rule of law and for human rights."

The ministers also reiterated their commitment "to further enhance the central role of the United Nations and to adhere to its Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy and relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions."