OTTAWA - A Dutch general warned Wednesday that if Canada and the Netherlands withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, it would "really hurt" the military and reconstruction efforts there.

Maj.-Gen. Mart de Kruif, who ended a one-year assignment last fall as the NATO commander for southern Afghanistan, told The Canadian Press that both countries have built considerable expertise in the volatile south, where the Taliban insurgency is the strongest.

"Everybody respects the huge efforts made by both these countries in southern Afghanistan. But people also realize that with so much knowledge out there, they have proven to be so skillful ... that it would really hurt from a military point of view if these two countries leave," he said in an interview.

The Netherlands is a key ally to Canada in southern Afghanistan, with 2,000 troops in Uruzgan province, which borders Kandahar, where the 2,800 Canadian Forces personnel are based.

But the Dutch government may be weeks from deciding whether its Afghan mission will be brought to a close by year's end. The Harper government, meanwhile, has made it clear that Canada's military operations will come to an end in 2011.

De Kruif said the surge of tens of thousands of new U.S. forces will be able to carry on the counter-insurgency work of the Dutch and Canadians, but not without some initial setback, particularly in development.

"Once a nation leaves, Canada or the Netherlands, there will be a setback in the acceleration of development," he said.

De Kruif is in Ottawa this week to compare notes with Canadian military and development officials, as part of a tour of NATO countries and its coalition partners in the broader 42-country International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). He stressed that politicians in both countries will ultimately decide whether their troops remain in Afghanistan.

De Kruif's remarks came as Prime Minister Stephen Harper was to host the visiting NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Wednesday.

The United States has a comprehensive new strategy on Afghanistan that was ordered by President Barack Obama, which includes a pledge to boost its troop levels by 30,000. But Rasmussen faces growing reluctance among other NATO partners to bolster their military commitment.

Analysts view Canada's intention to pull out in 2011, and possible withdrawal of the Netherlands, as a major challenge to Rasmussen's leadership and NATO's overall success in Afghanistan.

One of Rasmussen's top aides told The Canadian Press last week that the secretary general had no intention of asking Harper to reconsider Canada's planned withdrawal and stay longer in Afghanistan.

But as a former commander of the ISAF's multinational force in southern Afghanistan, de Kruif said, "talking about leaving does not have a positive effect on the Afghans and their trust in the coalition, that's a fact."

He added that "the more countries are willing to continue their presence there, the better it is for me. From that point of view I am concerned, but always in the context that I respect what has been done by Canada and the Netherlands."

De Kruif will lay a ceremonial wreath Friday in Ottawa to honour Canadians killed in Afghanistan.