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Clinton's attitude restokes doubts about Afghanistan

As the U.S. secretary of state, the influence of Hillary Clinton can be felt in every corner of the earth, but even the former senator couldn't have guessed the shadow she cast over the Prince George cemetery this week. The Tuesday burial of Cpl.

As the U.S. secretary of state, the influence of Hillary Clinton can be felt in every corner of the earth, but even the former senator couldn't have guessed the shadow she cast over the Prince George cemetery this week.

The Tuesday burial of Cpl. Darren Fitzpatrick, the first Canadian soldier raised in Prince George to be killed in combat since the Second World War, would have unearthed doubts about the conflict in Afghanistan. But Clinton, unhelpfully, restoked those doubts exponentially - and put Fitpatrick's death in grim relief - with a piece of rough diplomacy the day before he was laid to rest that bluntly, almost rudely, put Canada once again on notice the U.S. wants to see this country continue to field troops in Afghanistan past this year.

Clinton's remarks were foreshadowed the Thursday before Fitzpatrick's burial with a Globe and Mail report that NATO would be asking Canada to keep 500 to 600 soldiers in Afghanistan as trainers past 2011, the date agreed to by parliament for a pull-out. Pressed by the Opposition on the Globe article that week, Foreign Affairs minister Lawrence Cannon reiterated the government's position: the military mission will end in 2011.

Clinton had other ideas. Having already kneed Cannon on Arctic sovereignty issues, the

U.S. Secretary of State then bypassed both diplomatic channels and common courtesy by telling CTV in an interview that the Obama administration would "obviously like to see some form of support continue" from Canada in Afghanistan past 2011.

Foreign policy experts say Canadians shouldn't be offended by Clinton's sharp-elbowed approach, but it is baffling she would bring the same style she employs in Tel Aviv, Moscow and Beijing to Ottawa. And while the darker souled may enjoy the thought of Prime Minister Stephen Harper feeling the tug of Clinton's leash, the Secretary of State no doubt knew the Tories were vulnerable on Afghanistan due to the detainee-treatment issue; in that respect and others, Clinton's approach was, at the least, ill-mannered considering she gave Canadian officials no clue she was about to short-circuit this country's foreign policy by embarrassing the government on national TV.

And one hopes Clinton didn't see the death of Cpl. Fitzpatrick, the 141st Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan - and the resurgence of interest in the war it has generated across the country - as a pretext to contradict the Tories. It's impossible to say either way as a helpful sounding U.S. state department official nevertheless didn't return calls on the matter before press time.

Regardless, the government's position remains clear and Cariboo-Prince George MP Dick Harris reiterated it Wednesday: no Canadian troops, not 600, not 200, not five, will be fighting in Afghanistan past 2011.

"We are going to continue in a humanitarian role, in a role that assists in whatever way we can the Afghan people with their infrastructure, rebuilding their society," said Harris. "Assisting Afghanistan in those areas does not mean that we have a physical presence there. We can do that from afar and with our world neighbours who are committed to the same assistance for Afghanistan."

Firm words from the MP, who added he would "be forever grateful for the sacrifice" made by Cpl. Fitzpatrick.

That's the Conservative's position and it's remarkably free of hedged bets and doublespeak. Standing on the side of Highway 16, watching the honour guard fold the flag that was on top of Fitzpatrick's casket and pass it to his family, it was hard to feel as certain.

Smart policy, the correct policy, policy crafted from a rare consensus of parliament, says Canada poured eight years of blood and treasure into Afghanistan - and Prince George has now added to that bleak tally. After one more year of sacrifice, it's time to stop paying, Hillary Clinton's bullying and the United States be damned.

But, looking over the grave of a 21 year old soldier from Prince George now resting under the shade of a spruce tree, it's difficult not to dwell on the unfinished business that is Afghanistan.

Cpl. Darren Fitzpatrick died training the Afghan soldiers who are the only slim chance that country has from keeping the Taliban at bay. He died keeping Afghanistan reasonably stable to stave off its nuclear-armed neighbour, Pakistan, from descending into fanaticism and chaos. He died trying to control a country so deeply troubled it helps produce 90 per cent of heroin that enslaves addicts across the world.

Next year Canada's soldiers, soldiers like Darren Fitzpatrick, will be told to walk away from that struggle. That may be the right answer, but it still feels deeply wrong.