Canada has suffered a number of casualties in Kandahar [GALLO/GETTY]

A Canadian commission has recommended extending the country's military mission in Afghanistan beyond February 2009 but only if Nato deploys reinforcements to the region of Kandahar.

The Conservative party government has faced increasing pressure to withdraw its 2,500 troops from the southern province, a former Taliban stronghold, after the deaths of 77 soldiers and a diplomat.

The Independent Panel on Canada's Future Role report said 1,000 extra Nato troops would allow Canada to shift its focus from combat to training Afghan forces.

If the conditions are not met, Ottawa should "notify Afghan and allied governments that Canada intends to transfer responsibility for security in Kandahar," said the report, which was released on Tuesday.

The report's findings come a week after Robert Gates, the US defence secretary angered Nato allies when he publicly criticised European Nato forces in Afghanistan, saying they did not know how to fight a "guerrilla insurgency".

'Poison pill'

Canada troops are part of Nato's 42,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission.

The organisation is already struggling to persuade member states to send more troops to dangerous parts of Afghanistan where they face increasing attacks from a resurgent Taliban and their supporters.

In Depth

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John Manley, the commission's chairman and a former deputy Canadian prime minister, said: "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.

Canada's minority Conservative government could fall over the issue, since Stephen Harper, the prime minister, has promised that parliament will have the final say.

He wants to keep the troops in Afghanistan until at least 2011, but the three opposition parties are against the idea of the combat mission lasting beyond February 2009.

Diplomatic effort

The report also urged a major diplomatic push by Canada to co-ordinate international efforts in Afghanistan.

The panel said Harper should "personally take charge of this diplomatic effort."

"What is evident is that the commitment to Afghanistan made by successive Canadian governments has not yet been completed. The ultimate objective is to enable the Afghans to manage their own security," Manley said in a press release accompanying the report.

Ottawa should also 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 Bloc Quebecois party has demanded the return of the soldiers in 2009, while the New Democratic Party wants an immediate repatriation.

Stephane Dion, the Liberal Party leader, said on Monday in Kitchener, Ontario, that the combat mission should end in 2009, but added: "We will not abandon Afghanistan.

"After February 2009 what we want is a mission to help Afghanis to build that country; a mission in the tradition of Canada."

Source: Agencies