Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Australia to boost Afghanistan war effort - The Australian

AUSTRALIA is poised to lift the number of military trainers serving in Afghanistan after NATO announced plans to send another 5000 combat troops to stem a worsening Taliban insurgency.

That danger was reinforced last night with news two Australian special forces soldiers were wounded, one seriously, when their light truck triggered a roadside bomb on Saturday.

Kevin Rudd yesterday briefed cabinet's national security committee on talks with US President Barack Obama and the NATO summit in Strasbourg, both of which focused on a new policy approach in Afghanistan. It's understood the Government is preparing to send up to 250 army trainers and supporting troops to the war-ravaged country to bolster the Afghan security forces.

This follows the weekend agreement by NATO members to boost their overall troop numbers by 5000 in the lead-up to Afghanistan's presidential elections, scheduled for August.

Canberra welcomed the modest commitment of more NATO troops to Afghanistan and appeared ready to bolster troop numbers, despite growing public opposition to the war that has cost 10 Australian lives so far.

A Newspoll published in The Australian two weeks ago found that nearly two-thirds of respondents were opposed to sending more troops to Afghanistan.

"Australia will consider carefully any request for more assistance to Afghanistan, be it military or civil, in accordance with our capacity as long as strategy and risks are clear and acceptable," Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said.

New initiatives agreed to in Strasbourg include the establishment of a NATO training mission in Afghanistan.

NATO nations Britain, Italy and Spain agreed to additional increases of 900, 700 and 450 troops respectively.

NATO faces a growing Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, complicated by the corrupt Karzai Government in Kabul, an ineffective police force, a booming drug economy and al-Qa'ida and Taliban terrorist safe havens across the border in Pakistan.

Like their Afghan affiliates, an emboldened Pakistan-based Taliban has stepped up major attacks. Its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, last week claimed responsibility for a deadly raid on a police academy in Lahore in which at least eight trainee officers were killed.

Australia has about 1100 troops serving in Afghanistan, including a 440-strong Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force based in southern Oruzgan, helping train the Afghan National Army.

Unlike the US, Canada, Britain and Denmark, Australia has baulked at committing regular troops to hazardous counter-insurgency operations - a role it sees as best served by a secretive 330-strong special forces task group of SAS and commandos.

Defence did not give the location of the latest attack but confirmed one of the special forces soldiers was seriously wounded in the lower body. The soldier, who has not been named, has been flown to Germany for further treatment after stabilising surgery at a field hospital.

Defence Force Chief Angus Houston said: "It appears the immediate first aid that his mates applied, and the surgery he received at the coalition hospital, saved his life."

The other Digger escaped with minor wounds and was later evacuated to the Australian-Dutch base at Tarin Kowt.

Last month, SAS operatives and their Afghan colleagues killed a senior Taliban insurgent commander, Mullah Abdul Bari.

It was later revealed his death occurred in neighbouring Helmand province, proof Australia's Special Operations Task Group is ranging well outside Oruzgan in its hunt for Taliban leaders.

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