May 17, 2006. 01:00 AM

OTTAWA—The federal government's push for a new "large and important" two-year mission in Afghanistan is sparking opposition criticism that the Conservatives are acting with "Bush-like" haste in their military planning.

As the Liberals and Bloc Québécois also scrambled to prepare their positions for today's special debate, NDP Leader Jack Layton emerged from a special caucus meeting last night to announce that the 29 New Democrat MPs will vote against the minority government's proposal to extend to 2009 Canada's military presence in Afghanistan, which is now set to expire in February.

"We don't think there's a fully developed plan," Layton said. "We will not be supporting the new mission with so many questions."

In the Commons yesterday, critics from all the opposition parties jumped on the Conservatives' surprise push for a quick vote tonight.

They accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of seeking approval for a renewed military commitment before growing casualties erode public support. Sixteen Canadians have been killed in Afghanistan since 2002, including four soldiers who died in an April 22 roadside blast.

Liberal Ujjal Dosanjh, the MP for Vancouver South, said nothing has changed since Parliament held an informal debate on Canada's role in Afghanistan just five weeks ago — except the Tories' desire to put this issue behind them before the next election.

"It's a political ploy," Dosanjh said. "We shouldn't be playing politics with our troops and the lives of our troops."

"What worries me greatly is the very Bush-like, Rambo-style approach to this that is being taken by Harper," said New Democrat Alexa McDonough, referring to U.S. President George W. Bush.

When "legitimate, important questions" are raised, the Tories suggest this is "some kind of evidence that you're with the enemy," the Halifax MP said. "This is Bush talk and this is not the way Canadians want us making decisions."

Opposition MPs pressed the government to provide answers on a host of areas around the Afghan mission. What qualifies as a successful mission? Do troops have the right equipment? Why two years? What does a longer mission in Afghanistan mean for possible deployments to places like Haiti or Darfur?

"I think that those are questions that have to be asked," Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe said. "We should not consider the Parliament as a rubber stamp."

But with so many questions swirling, the government was providing few answers. Officials with Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor refused to comment, further proof of the Tory sensitivity on an issue on which opinion polls show public support is sagging.

Even the bare-bones motion that will be voted on tonight offers little guidance about what is planned beyond next February: "That this House support the government's two-year extension of Canada's diplomatic, development, civilian police and military personnel in Afghanistan and the provision of funding and equipment for this extension."

But Harper said yesterday it was "appropriate" that MPs have a voice in the future mission.

"We want to be sure that our troops have the support of this Parliament going forward," he said in the Commons. "What we are doing there is not just protecting our national interest but providing international leadership."

However, defence analysts suggest another agenda is behind today's vote — the desire of the minority government, which could face an election in the near future, to spread responsibility for a mission that might go sour.

"There's a sense that this mission could get out of control for them," said Steve Staples of the Polaris Institute, a left-leaning think-tank. "I think they're banking on all political parties to just salute the flag and sign off on another two years."

Geee color me surprised to all hell. Neocons are so predictable (at least to me), so why can't everyone else follow along?