KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - The large number of NATO deaths this month in southern Afghanistan has prompted renewed debate in western nations over the future of the mission, but the commander of international troops battling the Taliban in southern Afghanistan says it's critical Afghans know that NATO forces are there to stay.

The Canadian government has already announced an end to its military mission in Afghanistan at the end of 2011, and the Netherlands has said that Dutch troops will leave Afghanistan beginning in July 2010.

A spate of recent British deaths in Helmand province has spurred renewed debate on that country's continued participation in the war, and U.S. President Barack Obama has so far come up empty-handed in his appeal to other nations for more combat troops for Afghanistan.

Nearly eight years after the Taliban were toppled from power, the security situation has worsened and the U.S. decision to more than double its troops in the central Asian nation appears to some to be a last stand. The U.S. secretary of state has said there is only about a year to show visible signs of progress before the American public decides the war in unwinnable.

But Brig.-Gen. Mart de Kruif , commander of the NATO's Regional Command South, which includes the insurgent hotbeds of Kandahar and Helmand provinces, says regardless of the decisions of any one country, Afghans must know that the International Security Assistance Force will remain until the country is stabilized.

"It is important that the Afghans know that we are here to stay," de Kruif told The Canadian Press in a recent interview.

But de Kruif was not critical of the decision by the Canadian government to end the military mission.

"It should not have to be Canadian forces that stay, as long as coalition forces stay," he said.

"Whatever happens, if the Dutch leave or the Canadians leave, I do respect any decision made by any government. I think it's fair to say that Canada has made, from a military point of view and a civilian point of view, a major contribution...."

"What I'm interested in, is I think we need to carry on delivering the same effects that the Canadians have delivered in Kandahar. Whoever does it, that is not a question, but we cannot afford to lose the effect that the Canadians have brought to Kandahar, and that goes the same for what the Dutch have brought to (neighbouring) Uruzgan."

However, the ISAF commander noted that many of the soldiers now on the ground in southern Afghanistan - including the Royal 22e Regiment, or the Van Doos, that make up the majority of the current Canadian contingent - are here on their second and third tours of duty, so "we have much more experience in operating in this theatre."

July so far has been one of the deadliest months for coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, but military officials say that is because an increase in the number of U.S. troops has meant an increase in operations.

U.S. President Barack Obama has shifted his country's military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, and the influx of U.S. troops is ushering in a "new phase" in the war, de Kruif said.

The NATO-led force in the south is expected to number some 45,000 troops by the time of the Afghan elections on Aug. 20.

Regardless of which countries are on the ground, Kandahar Gov. Tooryalai Wesa said coalition troops would do well to focus their energies on the south, the spiritual homeland of the Taliban.

"If we have a peaceful Kandahar, we have a peaceful Afghanistan," said Wesa, an Afghan-Canadian from British Columbia who has returned to his homeland to help rebuild. "If we have a developed Kandahar, we have a developed Afghanistan."

"That's why we have to focus a lot here on Kandahar."

The additional forces will give the coalition the capacity to carry out the counter-insurgency they envision, de Kruif suggested.

"I'm sure we've got the concept right and we are now finally resourcing the concept and that leads toward a new phase," he said.

"You can't afford to go in a eight o'clock in the morning and leave at five o'clock in the afternoon because the insurgents will come back."

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