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Canada eyes exit from Afghanistan via Pakistan

Request to Islamabad suggests military faces trouble using its secret air base near Dubai

– Allan Woods, Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA – Canada wants to use Pakistani air bases to withdraw from Afghanistan next year, a development that provides the first hard glimpse of the military’s pullout plans and signals that an end to Canada’s decade-long war is at hand.

A Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman confirmed to the Daily Times newspaper in Pakistan Friday that a formal request had been received from Ottawa but Islamabad is still considering it.

The foreign office must first consult Pakistan’s powerful defence ministry [Military establishment] before agreeing to Canada’s massive logistical understaking. The request to use Pakistan’s military facilities for the pullout suggests there are problmes using camp Mirage, Canada’s secret air base located near Dubai, which is the transit point for Canadian troops and supplies entering and leaving the Afghan battlefield. And experts say moving through Pakistan is less than ideal from a security standpoint. The country has a weak government compared to the United Arab Emirates, many Pakistanis have built-up resentment toward western countries and there is a strong force of insurgent fighters and Taliban sympathizers who are relatively free to plan and carry out attacks from Pakistan’s tribal regions, said Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel and logistic expert.

Last year, Islamabad was under attack by Taliban militants, a threat that prompted a massive offensive on the Swat Valley to beat back insurgents in the tribal regions, which border on Afghanistan. Those hostile elements make no distinction between U.S. forces and and the Canadian forces, Drapeau said.

Canadian diplomatic and military officials refused to explain the request to use Pakistan as throough fare for the 2011 withdrawal. “It is too early to provide any details,” said Catherine Loubier, a spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon.

A sopkesperson with the Canadian Foces Expeditionary Command, which plans and oversees international military missions, said military officials must move hulking metal shipping containers, tanks and armored vehicles and thousands of kilograms of other equipment out of Afghanistan between the time the mission ends in July 2011 and the parliamentary deadline for the withdrawal from Kandahar in December 2011.

The very fact that Canada has had to request Pakistan’s help suggests there are difficulties conducting the pullout through Camp Mirage, a base that was “designed” for staging Canadian military operations in the Middle East and Asia. All Canadian military personnel, supplies and equipment currently pass through the base and Canadian Air Force crews are posted to Mirage because of how frequently it is used.

“There’s an issue with Mirage as to why they can’t use it, or won’t use it,” Drapeau asserted. Those issues could range from the absence of permission to fly over certain countries on the way out of Afghanistan, or limitations imposed on Canada by the United Arab Emirates.

Courtesy: TORONTO STAR, Saturday, April 17, 2010, page-10