OTTAWA - There's no way to tell right now whether NATO will have to extend its Libyan operation past the end of September, a top Canadian general told MPs on Friday.
In June, the Commons overwhelmingly voted to extend Canadian participation in the operation to September 27.
Maj.-Gen. Jonathan Vance, the director of the strategic joint staff, said, however, that a rushed withdrawal by NATO, without some kind of political settlement, would be disastrous.
Vance, who once commanded Canadian troops in Afghanistan, told MPs on the Commons defence committee that diplomatic and political efforts are vital now to produce a solution.
He says no one can predict how things will unfold over the next six weeks.
"There are a lot of factors," he said.
"Nobody could sit in front of you and categorically predict what the 27th of September will look like and it would be wrong to do so."
But, he said, NATO's efforts now are "essential."
"A precipitous withdrawal ... would be a calamity, an absolute calamity."
Vance said, though, that Moammar Gadhafi's forces have been badly hit by air strikes and the efforts of anti-Gadhafi forces. His navy is essentially gone, his air force is grounded by the NATO no-fly screen. His army can only mount small, tactical operations.
"He really lacks an offensive capability," the general said. "He would be unable to mount a game-changing offensive."
Newfoundland MP Jack Harris, the NDP defence critic, said he believes that NATO has done the job it set out to do, which was to protect Libyan civilians from Gadhafi.
"The capability of Col. Gadhafi to mount this kind of activity has been degraded to the point where that's no longer the issue," he said. "The problem that we have is that we don't want this to morph into some sort of prolonged mission."
It's time to go, said the New Democrat.
"From our point of view, we supported the extension in June ... to the end of September," Harris said.