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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada should withdraw its 2,500-strong military mission from southern Afghanistan next year unless NATO sends reinforcements to the area, an independent panel said on Tuesday.
The troops are due out in February 2009 and so far, 77 Canadian soldiers have died. Polls show growing unease about the mission's future and Ottawa is exasperated that NATO allies are refusing to contribute more troops.
The panel said extra NATO soldiers would allow Canada to shift its focus gradually from combat to training Afghan national security forces.
NATO is already struggling to persuade member states to send more forces to dangerous parts of Afghanistan.
The minority Conservative government could fall over the issue since Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised that Parliament will have the final say on withdrawing the troops.
He wants to keep Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan until at least 2011, but the three opposition parties are against the idea of the combat mission lasting beyond February 2009.
The panel said the troops, based in the city of Kandahar, should stay longer, provided NATO contributes reinforcements and the government acquires medium helicopters and unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicles.
Panel chairman, John Manley, a former Liberal deputy prime minister, said Canada should insist that NATO send a battle group of at least 1,000 soldiers.
"If this cannot be mustered over the next year, then Canada should signal its intent to transfer responsibility for security in Kandahar," he told a news conference.
"The mission is in jeopardy. There simply are not enough troops to ensure that the job can be properly done in Kandahar province ... we hope that this (our report) is not a poison pill," he added. "We need to be very direct with NATO."
Harper asked the panel last October to examine the future of the mission. Although the recommendations are nonbinding, Harper has said he will pay close attention before making a final decision.
Manley said Harper should put off a parliamentary vote on what to do with the troops until after a summit of NATO leaders in Bucharest in April.
But the left-leaning Bloc Quebecois demanded an immediate vote and accused Harper of trying to delay a decision until after the next election, which could come later this year.
"The Manley panel is opening the door to a mission with no end date ... we don't know how long Mr. Harper wants to wage war in Afghanistan. We've heard 2015, we've heard 2020," party leader Gilles Duceppe told a news conference.
Whether Harper wins a vote or not depends on the Liberals, the largest opposition party, who insist the troops' combat role end next February. Leader Stephane Dion declined to comment on the Manley report, saying he had not read it yet.
The panel said it had identified "harmful shortcomings" in the NATO effort. These included the failure to send enough troops to the south and a top-heavy command structure.
Ottawa should make "forceful representations with Afghanistan's neighbors, in particular with Pakistan, to reduce the risks posed to regional stability and security by recent developments in that country," the panel recommended.
The assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto last month prompted some Canadian observers to speculate that Islamabad would focus more on maintaining order than pursuing Taliban militants on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Editing by Peter Galloway