updated 2/21/2006 12:53:42 AM ET 2006-02-21T05:53:42

Australia will send another 200 troops to help with reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, nearly doubling the country’s military presence in the war-ravaged country, Prime Minister John Howard said Tuesday.

Howard said the troops would be deployed in late July for two years and will come under the command of a Dutch-led provincial reconstruction team.

Australia originally sent 150 special forces troops to Afghanistan as part of the U.S.-led war that ousted the Taliban and al-Qaida forces in late 2001, but then gradually reduced its troop commitment to just one soldier.

Australia began increasing its military presence in Afghanistan last year, sending 190 elite forces to help stem a rising tide of insurgent-led violence ahead of the country’s elections in September.

Last month, Australia announced it would also send an extra 110 troops and two helicopters to Afghanistan — bringing its total troop commitment to 300.

Howard said the new Australian contingent will be a mixed security and reconstruction task force and will be focused in the volatile southern province of Uruzgan, considered a Taliban stronghold.

Fighters loyal to the toppled Taliban regime have renewed attacks in recent months, increasingly using suicide bombings against international forces and the Afghan authorities.

The announcement comes as NATO prepares to expand its peacekeeping mission from 9,000 to about 16,000 troops in Afghanistan and become responsible for security in about three-quarters of the country. The separate U.S.-led combat force will keep the lead role in the eastern sector where Taliban holdouts have been most active.

A staunch U.S. ally, Australia also maintains about 1,320 troops in and around Iraq, including about 460 soldiers guarding Japanese reconstruction teams in the southern province of al-Muthanna.

Howard said he was confident that the new deployment would not overstretch the capacity of Australia’s defense forces.

“We are confident that, based on the advice that we have received, that it can be carried out without imposing an unreasonable or unfair strain on the (military),” Howard said.

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