Afghan president thanks Canada for 'giving the lives of your sons'
Kabul, March 14, 2006 (CP) - With military helicopters swirling overhead, Afghanistan's president told Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Tuesday that he is willing to visit Canada to convince Canadians their help is essential to building his country's burgeoning democracy.
"I've said to the president I hope to see him in Canada," Harper said at a joint news conference with President Hamid Karzai, the first head of state the prime minister has met face-to-face since coming to power in January.
"I'll be there," Karzai interrupted.
He said he was willing to come to explain to Canadians why their presence is so important, a message he asked Harper to take home to a Canadian public that has grown somewhat skeptical of a mission that has taken the lives of 12 Canadians since 2002.
"Please convey to your people, to the people of Canada, the immense gratitude of the Afghan people for what your country, your people have done for us," he told Harper after an hour-long meeting.
"For giving the lives of your sons, for contributing in money, for contributing in soldiers and for being one of the biggest helpers in Afghanistan."
Harper's meeting with the Afghan leader marked the end of the prime minister's surprise two-day visit to the troubled country.
In a stark reminder of the instability that still threatens the country, the news conference at Karzai's president compound was interrupted for 30 seconds while U.S. helicopters swirled overhead to check security at the palace.
The setting was perhaps an unusual inaugural foreign meeting for the prime minister, but Harper has made it clear throughout the two-day visit that Afghanistan is a high priority for the Canadian government.
He came to boost morale among the 2,200 Canadian troops serving in the country, but also used the trip to send the message back home the mission is indispensable - and that the government is not backing down.
Karzai said Canadian financial aid in rebuilding has already gone a long way to helping the country economically.
He gave the example of trade with neighbouring Pakistan. Bilateral trade with the country was $25 million per year under the Taliban, he said, noting that rebuilding efforts have increased the amount to $1.2 billion annually
While other foreign leaders have visited Afghanistan - U.S. President George W. Bush came for four hours earlier this month - Harper's trip was touted as unprecedented in its length and scope.
He arrived under tight security Sunday and spent two nights at the base of the Canadian-led mission in Kandahar. He ate a military lunch with soldiers and gave around 1,000 Canadian troops a pep talk, emphasizing the importance of their mission.
Harper told the troops that Canada will not run away from its commitments in Afghanistan, and that the mission will enable Canada to become a leader on the world scene, rather than a follower.
Harper also visited a nearby base where Canadian troops are training Afghan police.