Australia reassesses Afghan effort

Canberra will redeploy 150 special forces in time for Afghanistan's September elections.

The move by Australia to redeploy 150 special forces to Afghanistan in time for the September elections has been dismissed by experts here as a largely symbolic move designed to keep the US off Canberra's back - at least for now.

With 17,000 US troops and 8,000 NATO troops already in the country, and Britain planning to boost its force strength to more than 1,000, Australia's deployment is being dismissed here as a "pittance."

A former commander of Australia's special forces, Brigadier James Wallace says that the elite troops have their limitations. "They work mostly behind the scenes, they don't go on search and destroy missions and they are unable to provide a sense of security to the locals on the ground, which is the main requirement if you want to isolate the Taliban," he says.

"No doubt if you deploy 1,000 conventional forces you get more casualties, but this method is far less risky," says Aldo Borgu, former defense adviser to the Howard government and now director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.

The special forces are expected to return after one year.

Australia pulled out 1,500 troops from Afghanistan in 2002, including special forces, leaving behind one engineer for mining clearance.

Prime Minister John Howard is seen by some in Britain as offering only nominal contributions to the war on terror. Australia has 1,370 troops in and around Iraq, and 200 more troops will move to Afghanistan next year to do reconstruction work.

In Washington on Tuesday, Mr. Howard talked up Australia's commitment to the Iraq effort. "I'm not going to try and put a time limit on our commitment in Iraq," Howard said. "We will stay the distance in Iraq. We won't go until the job has been finished."

Focus on Australia's troop commitment may return sooner rather than later, as Britain rejiggers its deployment. Readying itself to take over NATO command in Afghanistan later in the year, a recent British defense ministry report leaked to the Mail on Sunday titled "Options for Future UK Force Posture on Iraq," suggests that both London and Washington plan to slash their troop commitments in Iraq.

It stated that Britain had a plan to cut its 8,500-strong contingent to about 3,000 and that Washington hoped to hand over security to Iraqi forces in 14 of 18 provinces by early next year cutting US-led troops levels from 176,000 to 66,000.

Of some concern to Canberra are recent media reports that Prime Minister Tony Blair will ask his Australian counterpart to take over command of southern Iraq at Basra during Howard's current visit to London. Mr. Borgu says that such a scenario would be "unusual" but "possible."

Others, however, see such a move as unlikely.

"The fact is that Britain can whine all it likes about Australia, but Howard can easily withstand the pressure from Blair, because the only two things that he really cares about are pleasing his voters and pleasing Washington," says Hugh White, strategic analyst at the Lowy Institute, an independent think tank in Sydney, and lecturer at the Australian National University. "And sending 150 troops back to Afghanistan in the face of increased violence in Afghanistan, though highly unusual, can be seen in the broader context of being seen to do something in the face of a resurgence of the Taliban," White adds.

On the other hand, sending more troops to Iraq is more controversial among voters here.

The troop commitment to Afghanistan, however, caused hardly a ripple. The opposition Labor party has long contended that it was wrong of Australia to pull out in the first place.

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