Gillard sticking to her guns

By Greg Ansley

On Thursday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard flew to the tiny tropical village of Yungaburra, a community of 1000 nestling on far north Queensland's Atherton Tablelands about an hour from Cairns.

Gillard and other senior Government and defence officials were there to farewell one of the town's sons, Commando Benjamin Chuck, killed a hemisphere away in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan's Kandahar Province.

The media were not welcome, for both personal reasons and because among the mourners were members of Australia's Special Forces, the secretive soldiers with whom Chuck had been working when his helicopter went down on its way to a pre-dawn raid on a Taleban stronghold.

The crash, which killed two other Australian commandos and injured seven more, came at a pivotal moment for Gillard. Four days after the troopers died, she ousted predecessor Kevin Rudd to become the nation's first female prime minister.

Gillard inherited Canberra's commitment to a war that has now killed 16 Australians and wounded 163, at a time when doubts about the conflict are growing both at home and abroad, and within days of United States President Barak Obama sacking General Stanley McCrystal for disparaging senior members of America's war cabinet in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine.

She also took office as the toll of US, Nato, Australian and other foreign soldiers soared to 100 for the month of June alone, almost one-fifth of the total for 2009.

Gillard is a committed supporter of the US alliance and the war in Afghanistan and is unlikely to make any early changes to Australia's deployment of about 1550 troops.

She said as much in her first media conference as prime minister, locking in one of the country's most important - and bipartisan - foreign policies.

But while dissent is at present far more a rumble than an uproar, the war is becoming increasingly unpopular and the Government is coming under growing pressure to refine its justification for participation and to set a timetable for withdrawal.

Neither is likely in the immediate future. Defence Minister John Faulkner's reasons for the Afghan commitment are the same as those given by former conservative prime minister John Howard when he first announced the despatch of Australian troops in October 2001: the US alliance and the war on terror, emphasised by the 88 Australians killed in the first Bali bombings.

"I stress ... how important it is to stabilise Afghanistan through co-ordinated military, police and civilian assistance, how important it is to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a training ground or safe haven for terrorists, and we certainly know of the impact that terrorists trained in Afghanistan have had directly on Australians," he said after the most recent casualties.

The closest to an exit strategy has been Faulkner's statement last week that force levels would be "adjusted" when the Afghan troops being trained by the Australians were judged able to take charge of security, at present considered likely within two to four years.

Australia's Afghan deployment is the largest part of Operation Slipper, a wider Middle East operation to counter terrorism and piracy in the Middle East.

Working with the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force, the Australians are based at Tarin Kowt in Oruzgun Province, training the new Afghan National Army's 6th Brigade and attacking Taleban insurgents with its SAS and Commando units.

It is an expensive war: including the A$1.6 billion ($1.9 billion) budgeted for the next 12 months, Afghanistan has so far cost Australia A$6.1 billion since 2001.

And it is dangerous. In addition to the three commandos killed last month, 35 other soldiers have been wounded so far this year, most by roadside bombs. Operations have targeted Taleban leaders, their strongholds and weapons caches, increasingly in company with Afghan forces.

Canberra has also boosted its civilian aid, doubling its diplomatic, development and police numbers to about 50, including technical advisers in such key Afghan ministries as health and education. Australians are training tradesmen, building and repairing roads, and developing schools, wells and irrigation projects.

The Australians are also working to restore stable government, conducting meetings with village elders and religious leaders, supporting the Afghan police to establish a presence in remote communities and installing a new district governor and police chief in the Gizab district of northern Oruzgan.

It is an effort that only the Greens among Canberra's major players oppose. In a major speech to the Lowy Institute for International Affairs in April, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott reaffirmed the Coalition's staunch commitment to both Afghanistan and the wider "Anglosphere".

"Over the past decade our military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq has deepened our alliance with the US, revitalised our military and broader security links with Britain and reinforced our significance in the region and the wider world," he said.

But while such sentiments ensure the war will not become a real issue in the imminent federal election, Australians are increasingly questioning the justification, strategy and conduct of the war. Next month the Dutch, who commanded Australia's ISAF forces in Oruzgan, will start withdrawing.

Obama plans to begin reducing US forces by July next year. British Prime Minister David Cameron wants his troops home within five years. Canada intends to leave. Prime Minister John Key revealed this week he had refused an Australian request to contribute more New Zealand troops to an Anzac unit in Oruzgan.

Casualties are accelerating. In the first six months of this year 323 ISAF soldiers have died, more than the total for any full year of the war except for 2009, when 521 were killed. Australian casualties have followed a similar pattern.

While Australia's political and military leaders report progress, Australians read with concern predictions by their own and Nato commanders of a long, bloody haul ahead. Last month, the United Nations reported that since March violence had risen significantly, with roadside bombings, suicide attacks and assassinations increasing sharply over last year's levels.

Public opinion is shifting within Australia. While readers' comments and a News Ltd online poll indicated a 50-50 split on Australia's presence after the most recent casualties, another in Melbourne's Age newspaper reported 58 per cent support for withdrawal.

An Essential poll found 61 per cent wanted troops brought home. An earlier Lowy Institute survey of the nation's mood said that 54 per cent wanted Australia to pull out, and that the majority of respondents were no longer confident their country had clear aims in Afghanistan.

Countering the polls and increasing media commentary questioning Australian involvement in the war is a strong pro-Afghanistan lobby that argues not only that a continued presence is vital to both national security and international stability, but also that Australians are not well served by media coverage.

Australian Defence Association executive director Neil James, a former Army colonel and defence academic, has noted that Afghanistan is the first war since 1940 without a resident ABC bureau, and that no Australian media group now employs war correspondents: "Consequently, the quality (of reporting) generally hovers between poor and appalling."

And the nation's political and military leadership remains upbeat. Defence Force Chief Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston said recently the insurgency had been blunted: "I feel that we've got to be patient here. Over time, I think we will prevail. We have the right leadership (and) we have the right strategy."

- NZ Herald

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