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Liberals open door to vote on Afghan extension

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks to high-school students in Richmond, B.C., on Nov 12, 2010.

Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Michael Ignatieff says he's willing to go along with the idea of a vote in the Commons on the latest proposal by the Harper government to keep Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

"We've never ducked a democratic debate on Afghanistan," he told reporters in Montreal on Monday after addressing college students.

The Liberal Leader said he would not propose a vote himself but that, if there is one, "we have no problem with that."

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Mr. Ignatieff's party had a chance to force a vote last Thursday on their opposition day, but chose not to do so.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe says there will be a motion in the Commons on Thursday on the Conservative government's decision to keep Canadian troops in war-ravaged Afghanistan until 2014.

But Mr. Duceppe admits the government can ignore the result of the vote.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said the government doesn't need a formal parliamentary vote to implement the extension of the Afghan mission.

Mr. Ignatieff came out last week in support of the announcement that 950 soldiers will remain in Afghanistan to help train the Afghan military.

In Ottawa, NDP chief Jack Layton said Mr. Ignatieff is showing a lack of leadership. "It's his role as Leader of the Opposition to do something about it, but he's abandoning his role [and]we can assume it.

"We need to take on the job of ensuring that there is a debate and a vote in the House of Commons and if he won't do it, well, then we'll certainly find a way to do it," Mr. Layton said.

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During the students' forum in Montreal which was also webcast, Mr. Ignatieff received several questions online about his position on Afghanistan.

He insisted that he had not done an about-face and that he has been clear from the beginning of the military mission.

"I think there is a strong case that we were in Afghanistan for one reason only which is to enable Afghanistan to defend itself," Mr. Ignatieff told his student audience.

"The job is not done, so I believe it's right for us to continue to train the Afghan army and police for another three years."

Mr. Ignatieff stressed that what's being discussed now is not a continuation of the current military operation.

"I mean, let's be clear: I would never want to have Canadian soldiers walking down those deadly alleyways in Kandahar for another three years and getting their legs blown off."

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The Liberal Leader's position has also brought criticism from within his own party.

But Mr. Ignatieff says he believes there is unity in the Liberal caucus, adding that Afghanistan must not be abandoned.

"The NDP and the Bloc say: 'It's finished. We can leave without consequences,' but we say, no, there are consequences if we make a sudden departure like that," he said.

"We've been there for a decade just to accomplish one task: that the Afghans can defend themselves."

While at Dawson College, Mr. Ignatieff had to respond to a broad range of questions on everything from what he thinks about euthanasia to whether he would provide help for students if he were elected prime minister.

"We might have an election in the next year," he told one student, hinting that post-secondary education would be one priority.

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