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Afghan Tour Pushes Canada Army To 'The Limit'

OTTAWA (Reuters) -- Canada's army is being pushed to the limit by the strains of keeping a 2,700-strong military mission in Afghanistan and the force will need at least a year to recover once the troops return on schedule in 2011, the top army commander has said.

Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie also told Reuters that he had heard nothing either officially or unofficially to substantiate media rumors that some of the troops would stay in Afghanistan after 2011.

Canada has a regular army of just 22,000 soldiers with a similar-sized force of reserves, half of whom serve part-time. Leslie said men and equipment in Afghanistan were wearing out fast and likened his job to juggling a chainsaw.

"We are at the limit...[and] we are now sending senior noncommissioned officers and officers back for their fourth tour," he told Reuters in an interview at Canada's defense headquarters. "Our equipment is going to have to be reset, just like our soldiers have to be reset at a certain time."

Leslie said that once the troops had returned, it would take between 12 and 16 months to restore the army's full fighting capability.

Canada's soldiers are based in the southern city of Kandahar, capital of a region that is the heartland of the Taliban. There are clashes with militants every day and so far 108 Canadian soldiers have died.

The mission comprises 2,500 soldiers with around 200 personnel helping maintain a fleet of helicopters.

Leslie said the demands on the army were far greater than just the 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. The cycle of rotation meant that for every group in Kandahar, there were 2,500 troops who had just left, 2,500 who were waiting to deploy and 5,000 in various stages of training.

"Just about every soldier in the army in one way, shape or form is intimately involved in the Afghan mission," he said.

To make matters more complicated, the army has promised to deploy 4,000 troops to help maintain security at the Vancouver Winter Olympics early next year.

"It's like juggling a chainsaw," said Leslie. "We can get it done...but it's really tight."

U.S. President Barack Obama -- who aides say is planning to commit up to an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan -- will fly to Ottawa for a brief visit on February 19.

Although some Canadian observers have speculated that Obama could ask Canada to extend its mission, Leslie said "there's no intent as far as I know to keep us there at these current force levels or at any force levels beyond 2011".

He added that no one in a position of authority had either officially or unofficially "hinted or intimated to me...that there is any nuance or option about something post-2011."

It was not immediately clear whether Obama would ask for the Canadians to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2011.

Leslie said Canadian soldiers were clashing with the Taliban every day, even though this is the winter season, when the fighting has traditionally been less intense.

"The level of violence is increasing and has been on a fairly steady upward trend...over the last two years and that shows no sign of abating," he said. "As more Americans arrive the levels of violence or violent acts will probably increase because there will be more soldiers on the ground out there trying to do good."