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G-G warned against visiting troops in Afghanistan

Alexander Panetta, Canadian Press
Published: Tuesday, May 30, 2006

OTTAWA -- Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean has asked and been twice denied a greenlight to visit troops in Afghanistan while watching the prime minister and foreign affairs minister make the same visit, The Canadian Press has learned.

Sources say security concerns were cited as a reason for advising the Governor General not to make the same trip made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay.

Jean, who is commander-in-chief of Canada's armed forces, told military officials early this year she wanted to visit the Kandahar military base, where 2,200 Canadian troops are stationed.

The Governor General also asked to visit Canadian aid workers at a nearby provincial reconstruction camp.

But she was told such a trip would be fraught with danger and it would be best if she waited.

She was also told that the trip could compromise military operations.

Jean then watched the prime minister make the very same trip in March after she was advised by DND officials not to go.

Jean asked again after Harper and Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor made their surprise visit to the strife-torn country.

Again, Jean was told conditions on the ground were too dangerous to permit a trip to the region.

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay made his own surprise trip to Afghanistan earlier this month after the Governor General's second request was given the cold shoulder.

"It was deemed that they would look at a date later on,'' said one federal official.

"They will look at an appropriate date but that date has not been found.''

That official said that Jean's desire to visit aid workers outside the main base complicated matters.

However, Harper, MacKay and O'Connor have all made the 15-minute journey by helicopter to visit soldiers in the provincial reconstruction team.

The teams include RCMP officers, Canadian development workers, and Foreign Affairs diplomats training their Afghan counterparts.

One source with knowledge of the discussions said the Governor General's initial interest in going to Afghanistan was greeted enthusiastically by military officials, who saw the journey by the popular head of state as a morale-booster.

The governor general received encouragement from Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier, Canada's senior military official. But he warned her that the timing wasn't right.

"We're doing a lot of stuff on the ground over there,'' said military spokesman Capt. Vance White.

"We need to make sure everything is secure -- both for any visitors that go over and to make sure ongoing operations . . . go off without any concerns.''

Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson visited Canadian troops in Afghanistan on New Year's Day 2005. Those soldiers were based in the relatively more secure environment of the capital of Kabul.

Harper spent three days on the base in March. He also visited the reconstruction camp, where he spoke to government workers and toured a training facility for bomb-defusing experts.

The base and camp are located at the opposite ends of Kandahar. Canadian troops have been attacked by insurgents while passing through the antiquated city of mud-brick huts and dusty desert patches.

The Governor General apparently wants to go badly enough that she might simply offer to limit her visit to the heavily guarded base.

"If the security situation continues to be somewhat tenuous (she) will rethink . . . (her) program.''
© Canadian Press 2006
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