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AUSTRALIA: Pressured to Do More in Afghanistan

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Mar 16 2009 (IPS) - With the internecine battle among some of the 42 contributing nations to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) over burden-sharing in Afghanistan continuing, the Australian government is giving little away about its intentions regarding an expected request for more troops.

In addition to the global economic crisis, the war in Afghanistan will be a high-priority discussion point when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd meets United States President Barack Obama in the U.S. on Mar.24.

Australia has around 1,100 troops on the ground in Afghanistan – the biggest contingent of any ISAF contributor outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) members – and Rudd is expected to be asked by Obama to boost this number to counter Taliban resurgence.

While defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon has indicated that such a request will be considered, foreign minister Stephen Smith last month reiterated the Rudd government’s public position when he said that an increase in Australian troop numbers would only happen after NATO countries upped their own commitments.

Australia has long shared the view of the U.S., Britain and Canada that NATO members such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain have not been doing enough in Afghanistan, not only in terms of numbers of troops in the country, but also the relative danger of the areas in which they are deployed.

Prof. Hugh White from the Australian National University’s strategic and defence studies centre says that although the view that some NATO members are dragging their feet in Afghanistan “is certainly true,” he does not agree with Canberra’s position that it is not required to increase its own troop levels as a result.

“I think that second argument is fallacious. At least, I think it’s likely to be seen to be fallacious by the audience that really matters, that is Barack Obama,” says White, who is also a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, a highly regarded Australian think-tank.

Obama recently authorised the deployment to Afghanistan of an additional 17,000 U.S. marines and army troops – the additional numbers mean that more than 50,000 U.S. personnel will be in the country later this year – while NATO also appears to be heeding the call.

At a meeting of the alliance’s defence ministers in Poland in February, U.S. defence secretary Robert Gates announced that some 20 NATO members are planning to increase their commitment in Afghanistan, either in civilian, military or training areas.

But while these stepped-up commitments will add to the pressure being applied to Australia, the Rudd government’s decision will ultimately reflect its relationship with the United States, says a Sydney-based analyst.

University of Sydney academic Gil Merom told IPS that any Australian increase will be marginal.

Although Stephen Smith announced the provision of an additional AUD 3 million (1.97 million US dollars) to the United Nations Development Programme on Mar.15 to support Afghanistan’s presidential and provincial elections, currently scheduled for August this year, Merom says that Australia’s involvement in the country must be viewed through the prism of its relationship with the U.S.

This is in addition to AUD 5 million (3.2 million US dollars) pledged by Rudd in December.

“Australia will contribute as much as it thinks, symbolically and otherwise, cements its relationship with the United States,” he argues.

“It’s not going to be a major contributor. It’s going to remain a minor contributor, so these changes, I think, whether up or down, will always be marginal,” adds Merom.

While this seems likely to be the case, it is also apparent that Australia is unwilling to make a decisive move on troop numbers until after the U.S. announces its updated strategy for battling the Taliban, expected this week.

Among the key issues that the Obama administration is believed to be keen to act upon are “safe havens” for the Taliban and al-Qaeda in neighbouring Pakistan, the potential for a regional approach, and the shoring up of the beleaguered central government of President Hamid Karzai.

But Australia’s indecision is also evident in the Rudd government’s hitherto inaction on a request by NATO for additional Australian civilian advisers to be based at Kandahar airport in Afghanistan’s south.

Fairfax newspapers have reported NATO officials as saying that weeks of negotiations regarding the advisers’ deployment have taken place since the request was initially made to Australia three months ago.

Further pressure is likely to be heaped upon Australia if Canada and the Netherlands – both of which are among the largest contributors to ISAF, with their troops also based in the volatile south of Afghanistan – go through with their plans to withdraw.

Canada has close to 3,000 troops on the ground – more than 100 Canadians have so far been killed in Afghanistan – and has set 2011 as a deadline for withdrawal.

The Dutch, whose current deployment is roughly 1,800 troops, lead the taskforce in Oruzgan province to which most of the Australian detachment is seconded. But this situation will change if Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende’s insistence that the Netherlands will pull out of the dangerous province next year comes to fruition.

Following the loss of the ninth Australian in Afghanistan during a fire-fight with suspected Taliban earlier this week, Neil James, the outspoken executive director of the non-partisan, community based Australian Defence Association, called on Australia to take over directly from the Dutch next year if they do indeed pull out.

But although a Dutch withdrawal from Oruzgan will not automatically mean that Australian forces will take over the leadership of the taskforce based at Tarin Kowt, it is clear that it adds another dimension to Australia’s involvement in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

“Obviously, if the Dutch and for that matter others, like the Canadians, were going to hold or even increase [their level of commitment] then it would be a lot easier for Australia to get away without a significant increase,” says Prof. White.

Employing a military-related metaphor, the Australian analyst adds that “the more that other big contributors pull the pin, the more the pressure is on us to do more’’.

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