OTTAWA (Reuters) - An independent panel is set to recommend on Tuesday that Canada extends its mission in Afghanistan by two years to 2011, a course of action that could bring down the minority Conservative government.
Canada has 2,500 troops in the southern city of Kandahar, a region where the Taliban are concentrated, and so far 77 members of the armed forces have died.
The mission is due to end in February 2009 and Ottawa will need to inform its NATO partners soon if it plans to pull out the soldiers. Recent polls show around half of Canadians think the troops should return on schedule.
Although Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants the troops to stay longer, all three opposition parties -- which together control a majority of seats in Parliament -- strongly dislike the idea of keeping soldiers in a combat zone.
Harper, who has promised a Parliamentary vote on the future of the mission, asked former Liberal deputy prime minister, John Manley, last October to make recommendations. Manley's report will be released at 9 a.m. on Tuesday.
Some of those interviewed by Manley, a strong supporter of the Canadian presence in Afghanistan, said they were sure he would urge that the mission continue but place more stress on training Afghan troops and less on fighting the Taliban.
Whether that would be enough to placate the opposition parties is yet to be seen. Harper could make the vote in Parliament a confidence measure and if he loses it, an election campaign would start immediately.
John McCallum, a senior legislator with the opposition Liberals, said Manley's report could trigger an election.
"If the government goes on the course it seems to be on, which is continuation of status quo and combat after March 2009, then that looks as though it could be a point of collision," he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Liberal leader Stephane Dion on Monday stressed the need for the mission to focus more on rebuilding Afghanistan and training the country's army.
"We will not abandon Afghanistan. After February 2009, what we want is a mission to help Afghanis to build their country, a mission in the tradition of Canada," he told a meeting of legislators in Kitchener, Ontario.
Harper won power in January 2006 and has been kept aloft partly due to Liberal support during confidence votes. Some Liberal legislators are fed up with backing Harper and Dion said in December he felt an election was more likely in 2008.
But his party trails the Conservatives in most polls and since then he has toned down comments about possibly defeating the government over its budget, expected by early March.
"There is no point bringing down the government when they're at 37 percent in the polls and we're at 30 percent," one senior Liberal legislator told Reuters, saying he did not detect any voter desire for another federal vote.
"We'll bring down Harper at a time that suits us, not him." he said. Recent polls show the likely outcome of an election now would be another minority Conservative government.
Editing by Bernadette Baum