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OTTAWA (Reuters) - A top Canadian general offered a cautiously optimistic view of the international effort in Afghanistan on Thursday, saying if things went well 2008 could be "a year of progress."
Lieutenant-General Michel Gauthier, overall commander of Canadian troops stationed abroad, stressed there were still major hurdles ahead in Afghanistan, such as tackling corruption and the narcotics trade.
But he said the 2,500 Canadian soldiers in the southern city of Kandahar had "made tremendous progress" over the last six months in tackling Taliban militants and training Afghan security forces.
"We're moving in the direction of the finish line. With more troops we could get closer to that finish line more quickly and we are going to get more troops over the course of the next year," he said.
"So there's the potential for 2008 to be a year of progress for the international community in Afghanistan," he told a news conference.
Some influential observers take a gloomier view, saying the NATO-led effort to stabilize Afghanistan could fail unless major changes are made and more troops are sent in.
The United States says it will send in an extra 3,200 marines later this year for a seven-month assignment designed to help counter a possible resurgence in Taliban attacks once winter ends.
Canada is threatening to pull its forces out on schedule in February 2009 unless NATO commits an extra 1,000 troops to the region. Ottawa wants to extend the mission until the end of 2011 and is trying to work out a compromise with opposition legislators.
Critics say the Canadian force focuses too much on combat and not enough on development and reconstruction.
"In a specific Canadian context ... we've made tremendous progress over the course of past six months," said Gauthier, adding that the insurgents had been "severely disrupted." Major problems remain, he acknowledged.
"We are still in a struggle to win the confidence, trust and ultimately the support of the local population. Corruption, narcotics and ineffective governance to some degree remain serious impediments, as is the state of social and physical infrastructure," he said.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Rob Wilson